“Earth and heaven endure forever,
Streams and mountains never change.
Plants observe a constant rhythm,
Withered by frost, by dew restored.
But man, most sentient being of all,
In this is not their equal.” – Substance to Shadow
The poetry of Tao Qian reigns true in our world today, but was very influential in China during the Period of Disunion, when China’s political state was unstable. The spread of Daoism created a society that “sanctioned a retreat from public life” according to the Norton Anthology of World Literature, and Tao Qian’s writing captured that point in history. Being someone who had taken public office for a few years before becoming a farmer, he had the experience to speak about the benefits of a simple life over that of one of power and luxury.
Who is Tao Qian?
“Born into an impoverished aristocratic family, Tao Qian took a minor official post while in his 20s in order to support his aged parents. After about 10 years at that post and a brief term as county magistrate, he resigned from official life, repelled by its excessive formality and widespread corruption” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Even though his family struggled from time to time, Tao Qian found comfort in things like writing, gardening, and drinking wine. These themes all appear within his poetry and represent the separation of oneself from high society and the fulfillment that comes with enjoying the experiences that money cannot buy. Although his work was not widely read and appreciated until years later, he was “admired as a recluse and a man of principle” because of his separation from societal norms and implementation of newer religious practices (Norton Anthology of World Literature). Not much else is known about his life other than what can be read in his poetry.
Tao Qian’s belief in Daoism is apparent in his poetry. Daoism was originally seen as a religion that rebelled against Confucianism because Confucianism mainly focused on morality and politics while Daoism supported personal and metaphysical development. There exists a more “let it flow” kind of attitude to Daoism which is prominent throughout Tao Qian’s poetry. In his poem The Return, Tao Qian says,
“It was my own doing that made my mind my body’s slave
Why should I go on in melancholy and lonely grief?
I realize there’s no remedying the past
But I know that there’s hope in the future.”
Although he realizes that his faults or misdeeds were his own, he keeps an open mind about the future and all of the lessons he has learned from letting himself be a slave to his body. He chooses not to dwell on the past because the mistakes were all his own and he understands that he can do better in the future. In Daoism, they believe in cosmology, or the natural order of the universe. Fighting this natural order will only cause more pain and suffering, so Tao Qian listens to his mind and chooses a relaxed life of a farmer over the job of a politician. Also the idea of primitivism, or that any human intervention the the natural order of things will disrupt natural harmony of the world, is clearly hinted at in this poem.
Biography of Master Five Willows
Tao Qian’s Biography of Master Five Willows could technically be seen as an autobiography. In Stephen Owen’s translation of this text, it is noted that Master of Five Willows, “is Tao Qian’s playful name for himself.” In this poem, the reader gets a glimpse of how Tao Qian might have lived. The poem states, “His coarse clothes were full of holes and patches; his plate and pitcher always empty; he was at peace. He forgot all about gain and loss and in this way he lived out his life.” Being a farmer was not a glamorous lifestyle and food was scarce, but Tao Qian much preferred this life over his old one. He was much more fulfilled with “swigging wine and writing poems to satisfy his inclinations.”
Substance, Shadow, and Spirit
In Substance to Shadow, Tao Qian speaks about the impermanence of human life. He states,
“But man, most sentient being of all,
In this is not their equal.
He is present here in the world today,
Then leaves abruptly, to return no more.
No one marks there’s one man less —
Not even friends and family think of him”
If people are not thinking about others once they are deceased, there should be no pressure to cater to anyone’s desire but their own. The last stanza in the poem, “When wine is offered, don’t refuse,” Tao Qian is telling his audience to not abandon the things they love because they won’t be able to indulge in those things once they are gone. At the same token, Daoists such as Zhuangzi referred to life and death as partners, and that fearing death was a foolish thing to do. The entirety of Tao Qian’s Substance, Shadow, and Spirit seem to be him coming to terms with death in a series of three poems. At the end of Spirit’s Solution, he states,
“Give yourself to the waves of the Great Change
And when it is time to go, then simply go
Without any unnecessary fuss.”
This is a very different sentiment than he has in Substance to Shadow, so the reader is watching as Tao Qian slowly accepts death for what it is: an inevitable part of life.
Tao Qian was one of the most influential poets in Ancient China. His writing, though not thoroughly appreciated until his death, was a vessel for Daoist teachings and ideals. Themes like impermanence, primitivism, and enjoying the pleasures of life are major philosophical and metaphysical notions that are still discussed to this day. After all, I’m sure most people would rather live in a little cottage in the woods, reading books and isolating themselves from society, than going to work and contributing to consumerism.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Daoism”. Encyclopedia Britannica, August 1999, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Daoism/Religious-goals-of-the-individual Accessed 15 March 2022.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Tao Qian”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Jan. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tao-Qian. Accessed 15 March 2022.
Qian, Tao. “Biography of Master Five Willows.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th ed., B, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2018, pp. 1096–1097.
Qian, Tao. “Substance, Shadow, and Spirit.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th ed., B, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2018, pp. 1097–1098.
Qian, Tao. “The Return.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th ed., B, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2018, pp. 1094–1096.