Tao Qian was a Chinese poet (365-427) who is legendary in China, known as a major figure of China’s literary tradition and a noted recluse. The Norton claims that “no Chinese poet before or after him captures with more immediate emotion the simple pleasures of country life, the value of being true to one’s inner nature” (p.1091). He served for 13 years as a government official but suddenly resigned to become a self-sufficient farmer in peace (1091). To explain his unconventional decision Qian says “Whenever I have been involved in official life I was mortgaging myself to my mouth and belly”, quoted in the Norton (1091).
As a farmer, Qian experienced food shortages and other hardships, but felt that the “excessive formality” and “widespread corruption” of official life robbed him of his ability to pursue his inclinations such as: drinking wine, gardening and writing poetry (Britannica). From this we have been gifted with poems such as “The Peach Blossoms Spring” and “Twenty Poems After Drinking Wine”. Here, I will analyze and discuss Tao Qian’s highly-esteemed poem “The Peach Blossoms Spring”.
“The Peach Blossoms Spring” depicts a fisherman who accidentally stumbles upon a beautiful grove of peach trees in bloom which he explores until he reaches the foot of a mountain “whence issued the spring” (1093). The fisherman sees then a small opening in the mountain-side through which he can barely pass, but on the other side discovers an entire community of people: houses, gardens, children, old men and families who all welcome him with hospitality. The poem explains this secret community as refugees who fled from the Qin dynasty and had simply stayed there and grown quietly over generations since. Using the trope of a utopian society, Qian suggests spiritual benefit from withdrawing from society, particularly a tyrannous and harmful society.
Qian describes in detail the community behind the mountain wall to display the contentment that can be found when one follows their own path. He describes the daily trials of farming the land, the worthiness of self-sufficiency and the peaceful leisure in such a society where “Children wandered about singing songs, / Graybeards went paying one another calls” (p. 1094). This perfect utopia Qian creates is comparable to an imaginal realm that exists only in ideal. The element of a hidden opening to the community through a narrow pathway, hidden in a grove of peach trees adds to the ethereal tone of the scene. It feels as though the fisherman passes into another magical world.
Although the fisherman gets to experience this utopia, he does not seem to have received the desired effect from the experience. When the fisherman leaves, he is asked by the people to keep their existence a secret. However, the first thing he does upon reaching the city is report them to the magistrate. This points to Qian’s personal struggle over choosing his official life and the life of a recluse, or in other words, choosing to stay “convention-bound” or “rise up high to find my own kind” (Qian p.1094). As Qian’s verse describes the hidden community from the fisherman story, the reader gets a sense of the tranquil utopia that requires no societal rules or dictation, where “no king’s tax was paid” (Qian 1094). Qian’s life-philosophy becomes clear from his praiseful depiction of the community:
Although they had no calendar to tell / the four seasons still filled out a year. / Joyous in their ample happiness / They had no need of clever contrivance. / … The pure and the shallow belong to separate worlds: (Qian 1094)
The picture of happiness depicted in “The Peach Blossoms Spring” resonates with readers all over the world, as it did with me. Utopian literature is fascinating in its idyllic creation of a equal and just society in which, as Qian chose in his own life, one can follow one’s own inclinations. Qian lived in the Period of Disunion, the four hundred years between the Han and Tang dynasty, during which a long sequence of dynasties occurred in a short amount of time (p. 1091). In this time of uncertainty, Buddhism and Daoism were spreading rapidly, religious schools of thought quite different from the duty-driven and serving philosophies of Confucianism. These religious ideas made their way into much of Qian’s writing, including “The Peach Blossoms Spring”. According to the Norton, Daoism and Buddhism both sanctioned a retreat from public life, therefore encouraging Qian’s decision as well as influencing the utopian aspect of “The Peach Blossoms Spring” (p. 1091).
This cultural context gives even further insight into the themes of seclusion and public vs. private life and one’s reaction to the society which one is born into. “The Peach Blossoms Spring” is a timeless work that calls the reader to bring a level of awareness to their own existence and to separate oneself from one’s society, something that will always be useful in this corrupted world.
Puchner, Martin, editor. “Tao Qian.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th ed., B, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1091–1092.
Tao Qian. “The Peach Blossoms Spring.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th ed., B, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1093 –1094.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Tao Qian.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Jan. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Tao-Qian.