Friday, August 10, 2007

Wang Wei

Wang Wei is one of China’s greatest poets (and painters), the creator of small, evocative landscape poems that are steeped in tranquility and sadness. More than that, though: while the poems are about solitude rooted in a serious practice of ch’an meditation, Wang worked diligently as a senior civil servant all his life.

I found his work via review of Jane Hirshfield’s wonderful collection After. David Hinton’s selection of Wang Wei poems is beautifully wrought. The book is carefully designed, and the Introduction and Notes are very helpful.

Wang’s poetry gives no hint of the daily bureaucracy that he must have dealt with. It’s anchored in his hermitage in the Whole-South Mountain, which was a few hours from the capital city where he worked. Wang was born in the early Tang dynasty to one of the leading families. He had a successful civil service career, passing the entrance exam at the young age of 21 and eventually serving as chancellor. His wife died when he was 29, at which point he established a monastery on his estate. He died at the age of 60.

Deer Park is one of his most famous poems. Here’s Hinton’s translation:
No one seen. Among empty mountains,
hints of drifting voice, faint, no more.

Entering these deep woods, late sunlight
flares on green moss again, and rises.
(For more translations, see here and here.)

Wang’s work shows that one can make spiritual progress while also participating in society. One does not have to give up the daily life and become a monk, though it’s surely important that one’s mundane activities make a contribution to the good of society.

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