Wang Wei

A poet by mistake. Wang Wei lived during the Tang dynasty in China. When he was twenty years old he was suspected of collaborating with An Lushan’s rebellion against the Tang dynasty. With his brother’s aid he was able to clear his name. Wang Wei was close enough to An Lushan’s rebellion to use that as an inspirational source for his poetry, “While I was Imprisoned in Puti Monastery” is one of the few times that he does this. He also focuses on poems that are like his landscape paintings and have a focus on nature more than humanity. His poems also reference the path to enlightenment, Taoist imagery, and alchemy. He refers to the buddhist idea of detachment from all things or all things being empty like in “Zhongnan Retreat.”

(this is not Wang Wei’s art, but it is what one of his landscape paintings would look like.)

Zhongnan Retreat
In middle years I am rather fond of the Tao;
My late home is at the foot of Southern Mountain.
When the feeling comes, each time I go there alone.
That splendid things are empty, of course, I know.
I walk to the place where the water ends
And sit and watch the time when clouds rise.
Meeting by chance an old man of the forest,
I chat and laugh without a date to return.

As I am in my middle years I also have grown fond of the Tao, or a universal harmony in all things. When I go out into the world without my wife, kids, or honeydew list it is to go back to nature. The feeling of a connection bigger than yourself can be found there and this is what the poem speaks about, to me. Wang Wei’s feeling that comes, is one that I view as that feeling deep down that we all share from time to time as we get older. This is the desire to stand motionless and empty of thought. Have you ever caught yourself on a warm summer day, stopping closing your eyes and just feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin? That is the feeling. Does Wang Wei mean he literally walks to a place where the water ends or does he mean that he found a nice comfy spot and meditated and his mind is the place where the water ends? My guess is the latter because this is a poem about Taoism written in the Tang Dynasty. This poem hints to a few similarities to the myth and makes us believe that in meditating at the mountain top with a clear mind that Wang Wei also met Laozi like Yi Xi does.

The rest of the poem goes into Chinese lore about the Zhongnan mountain. “Yi Xi was an astronomer for the governor of Hangu Pass in the Chu Dynasty. Yi Xi builds his home on the mountain to watch the sky every day. One day he went to observe the sky and saw a purple mist coming from the east and an auspicious star-traveling westward. He saw these as signs that a saint would be traveling through Hangu Pass so he waited there for the traveling saint. An old man wearing a cloud patterned outfit riding a blue bull traveling westward on Hangu Pass appeared and Yi Xi invite the man into his home on the mountain. The old man traveling through the forest was Laozi who is the founder of Taoism and he taught Yi Xi his book Dao De Jing and then flew away.” (Dao De Jing & YIN XI: The Guardian of the Pass)

Gold Powder Spring
Drink each day at Gold Powder Spring
And you should have a thousand years or more:
To soar on an azure phoenix with striped dragons,
And with plumes and tassels attend the Jade Emperor’s
court.

This poem refers to multiple images of immortality. In Chinese alchemy gold was a way of attaining immortality so the Gold Powder Spring might be a reference to an old alchemic potion; although they also drank mercury, lead, and arsenic so I wouldn’t personally drink that potion. Golden pills were taken by the aristocracy in an attempt to achieve immortality, which did, in fact, poison them. This reminds me of the lesson in The Jātaka about not trying to avoid our fate. We see in the second verse the imagery of someone consuming something and them not becoming immortal but gaining more years to their life repeated in later tales like Journey to the West where Sun Wukong eats some heavenly peaches and it ads 3,600 years to his life per peach. Though Journey to the West had yet to be written in Wang Wei’s time, the monk Xuanzang who is the inspiration for the tale lived did exist during Wang Wei’s lifetime. The Jade Emperor is another figure we also here about in Chinese mythology he is the emperor of the immortals.

Works Cited:
Pucher, Martin, The Norton Anthology of World Literature: New York, 3rd edition, Vol B. 2012.
Doina. “WANG WEI – Great Chinese Poet.” TOUCHING HEARTS, 1 Jan. 1970, https://doina-touchinghearts.blogspot.com/2013/06/wang-wei-great-chinese-poet.html.
“Dao De Jing & YIN XI: The Guardian of the Pass.” Healing Tao USA, https://healingtaousa.com/articles/dao-de-jing-yin-xi-the-guardian-of-the-pass/.

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