Early literary critics in China, particularly the sixth century Zhong Hong and Liu Xie, concerned themselves with the evolution of literary styles and forms. Their evaluations of Xie Lingyun’s work therefore were concerned chiefly with placing him in the stream of literary history. According to Zhong Hong, Xie Lingyun’s “talents were lofty and his diction flourishing, rich in charm and difficult to emulate,” so that as “the master of the Yüan-chia period (424-453)” he transcended the literary giants who preceded him. Placing Xie Lingyun in the top rank of three categories of poets, Zhong Hong remarked that Xie Lingyun’s poetry was derived from that of the politically minded Cao Zhi (192-232) and interspersed with elements of the florid Zhang Xie (flourished 295).
By the seventeenth or eighteenth century, in spite of evidence to the contrary, Xie Lingyun was firmly ensconced in Chinese literary history as the founder of shanshui (“nature” or “landscape”) verse. J. D. Frodsham demonstrates that landscape and nature themes were prominent from the earliest beginnings of Chinese poetry. In particular, Frodsham points out, Xie Lingyun’s early landscape verse appears to have been molded by the instruction of his uncle Xie Hun. In the end, however, it matters less that Xie Lingyun was the inventor of the genre than that he was its most qualified exponent.
Among the various influences that enhanced Xie Lingyun’s native literary genius were his childhood Daoist studies and his later association with the most advanced Buddhist intellectuals of his day, his personal involvement in the perilous political life of his times, and his travels in the course of official postings, exiles, and banishments in the forested mountains and rivers of South China—in the fifth century, still mostly virgin territory.
Unlike his predecessor Ruan Ji (210-263), for example, Xie Lingyun wrote very little poetry satirizing political evils. Occasionally he quotes from the Confucian canon, saying that when government is in decay, it is proper to retire. Otherwise, he criticizes his own disinterest in mundane administration, apologizing to his liege-lord and eulogizing him rather than remonstrating with him. He admits that he is idle and stupid, his administration far from ideal, quite unworthy of the honors bestowed on him. The emperor, on the other hand, is perfectly sincere and excels in the Way. Such was the accepted rhetoric of the time, and no great political or satirical construction should be placed on these worn lines.
Daoist anchorite escapism abounds in the poetry of Xie Lingyun, usually expressed in admiration for the sages of ancient tradition. Within the space of a few lines in a single poem, one reads both of his ambivalence toward an official career (“Throughout my life I’d have preferred distant solitude”) and of the seductive appeal of a steady government...
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