Lessons From the Tang

On Retirement
Meeting, we dismount from our horses and drink wine.
I inquire of your destination.
You answer that you have no interest in this world
And are retreating for rest in the Southern mountains.
I would not ask you again—
For in leaving behind the trouble of riches and the
cares of state
Your joys like the white clouds will have no end.
—Wang Wei
This poem comes from Images in Jade, a collection translated by Arthur Christy. I first encountered ancient Chinese poetry during my junior year of college when I took an Asian Humanities class. When I first read this poem, standing in the aisle of the Harold B. Lee Library, I knew this was the beginning of another journey. To quote Edward A. Burger in his 2005 film Amongst White Clouds, “Those ancient [poets] knew something I wanted to know.” They had an almost spiritual connection with their surroundings and they wrote about their experiences in what is now known as the rivers-and-mountains tradition. What struck me most about these ancient poets, especially the great Tang poets, like Yan Wang-Li and Li Po was their ability to capture single moments in such few words. They often lived as recluses, exiled to various places in China’s vast wilderness, or, as Wang Wei describes, simply retired from “the cares of state.”
As a reader in the 21st century and one bred on the Western poetic tradition, the style was very unfamiliar but the message resonated so strongly that I devoured more and more books to satisfy this new vein of curiosity. The Tang poets showed me that you can create beauty even of the most seemingly insignificant moments. Small moments – moonlight on the windowsill, water dripping from the eaves, a fly warming itself in the sun – are not “mere” moments. With a heightened awareness to your surroundings, small moments are not easily cast off. Thus, the ancient Chinese poets taught me to be more aware of my surroundings, even the mundane. Though I have read many books of Chinese poetry, Wang Wei’s beautiful insight into a meeting with his friend still remains one of my favorites for the understanding it shows between friends and the longing people feel for certain places.

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