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The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Sixty Six (by Bai Juyi)

Through sickness

And recovery

Strength has diminished

With age you feel 

Time’s quickening

58 only yesterday

Today I’m 66

White hair

Adorns my temples

Like fine silk

The grass by

The pond grows

Far more thick and lush

The children have

All grown up

The garden now half

Filled with 

   Thick tree trunks

See how large rocks

Slide down the mountain

And the stream

Penetrates into

The bamboo grove’s depth

 Even when there’s 

But a slow trickle

It sounds

Like a mad rush

Though as long as 

I’ve been listening

I have not yet

Heard enough















Tuesday, December 26, 2023

A Drawing of Pine and Bamboo (by Tang Yin)

 Drawing of Pine and Bamboo


Tang Yin


A brief banquet seated

With birdsong for musical score

I could inscribe my whole life

This way from my heart’s core


Yes, my whole life  

Could surely pass this way

With pine and bamboo together

In simple harmony









I wonder if this a poem about making or looking at a piece of art.  Remember that Tang Yin was both a poet and a painter and as a result many of his poems were inscribed in his own hand directly alongside one of his paintings. In either case, I wish I could find the image that inspired this poem, but all I could find with my online searching was this drawing of pine and bamboo made at a much later date, I believe, but nonetheless showing pine and bamboo in harmony.


Saturday, December 23, 2023

A Picture Too Real (by Tang Yin)

Translating a classical Chinese poem sometimes calls for guesswork, in order to fill in the gaps in my understanding.  These poems are so rich in cultural reference, it's hard for anyone not raised in the tradition to pick up even half the allusions.  Not only that but much classical Chinese poetry is written in a terse or compact style, which makes it inherently subject to more than a single interpretation. At a certain point, you have to be willing to make your own intuitive leap in order to come up with a good reading of the poem.

Even after you make an intuitive leap, though, not everything always neatly lines up with your reading.  It's a bit like trying to hold a cat in a bag, the way the meaning of the text will keep shifting about and can't be firmly grasped.  

The last line of this poem by Tang Yin is a good example of what I mean.  I think I understand this poem but then there's the last line, which makes me wonder about my tenuous perch.

A Picture Too Real

Tang Yin

From ancient times

Flowers have spoken

Of immortal beauty


Self too partakes

Of such beauty

No matter how

Ill-fated one’s luck


The lilting tune

Of Rainbows and Feathers

Continues – an unending dance


With a long winding train  

Of golden brocade

The horse is perched

On a rocky slope










Thursday, December 21, 2023

In a Thatched Hut Dreaming of an Immortal

 Here's another painting and poem from the Ming artist Tang Yin.  First the poem.

In a Thatched Hut
Dreaming of an Immortal
In repose head resting
Atop a book fast asleep
I dreamed I fell into a large pot
Where the sky stretched above
As if from the void there came
A strange but familiar spirit
 To impart the secret truth  
 Directly in the flesh


And here is the painting or more precisely a close up of the middle section of a longer scroll.  In this middle section you can see the dreamer in the thatched hut to the right and a Daoist Immortal approaching out of the void.

Here's the full scroll.

This scroll painted by Tang Yin in the early 1500s for his friend Wang Dongyuan somehow ended up in the collection of the Smithsonian.  It depicts Wang's dream of being approached by an Immortal while he slept in a thatched hut in his garden. 

Monday, December 18, 2023

Aspirations (by Tang Yin)

Here's a short poem by the Ming artist Tang Yin that captures the artist's aspiration to find a way to live free of the work-a-day world's entanglements.   Most likely written in the early years of the 1500s, it might just as easily come off the pen of a beat or millennial slacker poet. 


Tang Yin

No alchemy

No meditation

No commerce

No work in the fields


Just writing at leisure

To the green hills give all

Free of human toil

By money unsoiled










In addition to writing poetry, Tang Yin was a painter - in fact that's primarily what he was known for.  He was one of the most highly regarded landscape painters of the Ming Dynasty.  Here's one of his paintings which I think should give you a good idea of how he aspired to give the green hills his all.

Although there are no green hills in this wintry landscape, it is a moment closely observed, as a flock of corvids land in a barren treetop.  I’m not sure this is right … but I see this painting as a self-portrait, of sorts, with the poet/painter being the person shown walking beside the stream.  This is the artist strolling downstream, feeling deeply at ease in nature; he looks up into the tree tops and is suddenly possessed by the idea for a new painting.  It’s the moment of inspiration.  In other words, this is a painting of the moment when the idea for the painting first took form.

Friday, December 8, 2023

Belatedness with Chinese Characteristics


I recently came across this poem by the Ming poet Tang Yin (1470-1524) that was written in response to a well-known preface and poem written by the Tang poet Wang Bo (650-676).  Almost 1,000 years separate these two men and yet, as often seems to be the case with Chinese poetry, a remarkable sense of cultural continuity makes their dialog both possible and rewarding.


First, my translation of a few lines from Wang Bo’s preface, followed by Tang Yin’s response.


Wang Bo (an excerpt from Preface to Prince Teng’s Pavilion)


A lone bird flies towards the setting sun

Autumn water and broad sky merge as one

A fisherman’s song echoes dimly across the lake

Startled, a flock of geese break the stillness

With trembling calls as the cold draws near

Along the shoreline








Tang Yin

Untitled Poem


Expressing yourself

Something always

Remains concealed

Or omitted

A lone bird, the clouds at sunset

Autumn waters and broad sky

In this auspicious place

Mountains and lake

Without blemish


A thousand years

Pass by in an instant

Just ask the people on the water

How the Emperor’s pavilion

Looked back then












It may help your understanding of the interchange between these two poets if I share a bit of background.  Wang Bo was part of the first wave of great poets during the Tang Dynasty.  He was a child prodigy who started writing his own poems at the age of 6 but whose life was cut short when he drowned at sea at the age of 26.  Even so, he left a lasting mark on the history of Chinese poetry, not just for his body of work, consisting of 76 poems, but also for his contribution to poetic theory. Wang is generally credited as one of the first major proponents of the idea that a poem ought to directly reflect the poet’s own state of mind (言志). This was a novel idea at the time but soon became accepted as a fundamental part of the Tang esthetic, essential to the art the great Tang poets who followed in his wake, from Li Bai to DuFu to Wang Wei, all of whom adopted and adapted Wang Bo’s precept in their own way.  This view of poetry as a deeply personal mode of expression is what makes Tang poetry so accessible to us today.      


Wang Bo’s contribution to poetic theory is one of the keys, I think, to understanding the subtlety of Tang Yin’s response.  The first line of Tang Yin’s poem (兴发总关情) may be best understood as a gloss or further refinement on Wang Bo’s view of poetry as direct personal expression.  Whatever a poet reveals, something always remains concealed.


There’s alot going on here, including historical references,not all of which I fully understand.  Both poets stood in the same place, more or less, when they wrote their poems, on the shores of the Gan River, looking towards a monument known as Prince Teng’s Pavilion.  This is one of the most well-known structures in southern China, originally built in 653 by a younger brother of the Tang Emperor Taizong. But in the intervening years between Wang Bo’s poem and Tang Yin’s, the Pavilion was destroyed and rebuilt more than 25 times.  I think this is part of Tang Yin is thinking about in the second stanza of his poem – Prince Teng’s proud tower standing as a monument to cultural continuity, destruction and change.


What I find so compelling about Tang Yin’s poem is how it’s imbued with this strong sense of belatedness – a later day poet puzzling over his own place in a long-standing cultural tradition.  But this is belatedness with distinctly Chinese characteristics, as opposed the way Harold Bloom used the term.  Tang Yin as a later day poet is not so much struggling to make his own mark by overcoming his predecessor poet. The grand monuments in Chinese culture are always being built, destroyed and rebuilt, just as the grand poetic tradition is never complete (because no personal expression can ever be said to be complete) but remains ever evolving.  A sense of belatedness is no cause for struggle but rather stands as an invitation to participate in the long sweep of Chinese culture. 

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Belatedness Abounding

Expending oneself

To what end I wonder

Writing bluesky haiku

What used to matter

So much it wanted

Constant rephrasing

What of the sunset

Used to feel

Praise worthy 

Beyond mention now

Passes without notice

Belatedness abounds

Even for those unable

Or unwilling to speak