Xie Lingyun Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Chinese poet and philosopher{$I[g]China;Xie Lingyun} Xie Lingyun was the first and greatest of China’s nature poets, the founder of a school of verse. A philosophical syncretist, he blended elements of Confucianism and Daoism with Buddhism to produce a uniquely Chinese synthesis.

Early Life

Xie Lingyun (shyee ling-yewn) was born into one of China’s most powerful and illustrious aristocratic families of the Six Dynasties (420-589 c.e.). As secretary of the Imperial Library, his father was the least prepossessing member of the Xie clan, which had included a host of distinguished poets, calligraphers, and high-ranking imperial officials. The Liu, Xie Lingyun’s mother’s family, was distinguished by its calligraphers, notably Wang Xizhi (321-379 c.e.). In the light of his familial background, Lingyun surprised no one by his precocity. As a small child, he was placed under temporary adoption in Hangzhou with Du Mingshi (Tu Ming-shih), a devout Daoist. Calligraphy was an integral part of Du Mingshi’s Daoism, and Lingyun proved an apt pupil. The boy remained with his foster family in the splendid aristocratic environs of Hangzhou until he was fifteen.

In 399 c.e., a rebel faction led by Sun En invaded Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, and in the ensuing struggle Lingyun’s father was killed. His family decided to send Lingyun to the safety of their house in the capital, Jianye (Chienyeh; now Nanjing). There he came under the decisive influence of his uncle, Xie Hun (Hsieh Hun), a handsome, aristocratic figure who was recognized as one of China’s foremost poets. Married to an imperial Jin princess and secure in worldly ways, Hun had drawn together a lively, exclusive literary salon, into which Lingyun was inducted. He was soon recognized as a stellar member. The precocious Lingyun cut a swath around Jianye even in an age notorious for social ostentation and eccentricity. He had inherited the title of duke of Kangluo (K’ang-lo); as such, he drew revenues from more than three thousand households. Xie Lingyun affected foppish dress, extravagant behavior, and a languor that challenged the efforts of scores of attendants. Dukedom also brought government appointments: He was made administrator to the grand marshal and, more important, administrator in the Redaction Office, a post that ensnared him in the political fortunes of Liu Yi (Liu I). It was thus that he was forced to endure a chain of misfortunes that dramatically altered the course of his life.

Life’s Work

When Lingyun entered service with Liu Yi, Yi had emerged as the most distinguished leader of a revolt against another rebel, Huan Xuan (Huan Hsüan), who founded the abortive Chu (Ch’u) Dynasty in 404 c.e. Yi’s victories against Huan brought him the dukedom of Nanping (Nan-p’ing) as well as a military governor generalship, these posts devolving on him from Liu Yu (Liu Yü), the titular restorer of the Jin Dynasty in 405 c.e. Lingyun’s fortunes might have been assured if Liu Yi had accepted Liu Yu’s political supremacy. He did not. Thus, between 405 and 411 c.e., a series of complex plots and inevitable military clashes between partisans of the two men resulted in Yi’s defeat and disgrace. Through the course of these events, Lingyun served on his staff, ultimately suffering the consequences of his fall. Moved to the periphery of power, Yi, with Lingyun in tow, was obliged in 412 to establish his headquarters at Jiangling in Hubei Province. There, Lingyun’s life changed decisively.

While posted to Jiangling, Lingyun visited the famed Buddhist center at the nearby Mount Lu. The Eastern Grove Monastery, which eventually became the most influential southern center of Chinese Buddhism, had been founded by Hui Yuan (Hui-yüan; 334-416 c.e.), himself the principal disciple of Dao An (Tao-an; 312-385 c.e.), who had been the first to emphasize the basic distinctions between Indian Buddhism—essentially an alien doctrine—and the casual versions of Buddhism that had been integrated with mainstream Chinese culture. Hui Yuan devoted himself to making the Chinese aware of the foreignness of Buddhist thought, hoping to make the purer form of its teachings and practices acceptable to well-educated Chinese aristocrats. Lingyun found that this transcendental, poeticized Buddhism, with its many concrete images, appealed to him far more than the intellectualized Buddhism common to the capital and his native region.

Moreover, Lingyun’s poetic sensibilities were overwhelmed by the beauty of the Eastern Grove’s setting—craggy, forested mountain peaks enshrouded in mists, lush gorges filled with tumbled boulders and riven by pure, roaring streams—and the austere way of life of its devotees. The contrast with the corruptions and hostilities of court life was compelling. In his poetic “Dirge for Hui Yuan,” Lingyun revealed his yearning to immerse himself in Buddhist study and to accept a place even as the least of Hui Yuan’s disciples.

As Lingyun was falling under the spell of Eastern Grove Buddhism, however, the fact that he and the Xie family had thrown in their lot with the wrong leader was becoming all too clear. Liu Yu, having consolidated his position, crushed Liu Yi, Lingyun’s mentor, on December 31, 412 c.e.; Yi eventually was killed. Liu Yu spared Lingyun, however, and coopted him into his service in 413 c.e., first as administrator to the commander in chief, then as assistant director of the Imperial Library. During the time that Lingyun held these posts, the Chinese monk Faxian (Fa-hsien; c. 337-422 c.e.), after fourteen years in Afghanistan, returned to Jianye rich in Buddhist lore. He reported having seen a gigantic image of Buddha, in a cave, shining with brilliant light and casting mysterious shadows. Hoping to replicate this image, Hui Yuan arranged a similar shrine for the Eastern Grove. Painted shades of...

(The entire section is 2422 words.)


(World Poets and Poetry)

Following the flight of the Jin aristocracy in 317, south across the Yangzi River to escape the invading Topa tribes from central Asia, the Xie clan came to prominence among the handful of cultured land barons who dominated the ensuing Southern Dynasties era (317-589). Their eminence stemmed from successive generations of extraordinary political and intellectual brilliance. Xie Lingyun’s own direct forebears included the distinguished poet Xie Kun (280-322) and the statesman Xie An (320-385). On Xie’s mother’s side, he was descended from the great calligraphers Wang Xizhi (321-379) and his son Wang Xianzchi (344-388).

The young Xie Lingyun was intellectually precocious and, presuming on his wealthy estate as a...

(The entire section is 1204 words.)