27/10/96 My kind of hero- from the Tang dynasty
|Sunday, October 27,1996
The Sunday Times, Page 4
My kind of hero- from the Tang dynasty
That was during the Tang dynasty (AD 618 - 907), when it was the strongest, most advanced and the best governed country in the world.
Pin Foo, 60, who retired from an illustrious career recently, ploughed through 16 books, most of them in Chinese, to produce the article.
He was new to the Macintosh, and had never had to do any typing of his own all his life. He laughed about his one-finger typing, but I could imagine him perched before his monitor and, with one finger, slowly and painstakingly, peck out his piece. It had to be a labour of love.
If you missed the article yesterday, you should find the time to read it today, and forgo Baywatch, or brunch.
Inspired by him, although I can read little Chinese, I shall try, in this more modest column, to share with you what little I know of the great Tang poet and painter Wang Wei, who, together with Du Fu and Li Bai, represented- I am being simplistic hereñ the three principal ways of seeing the world which shaped the Chinese mind: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.
Anyone with a little acquaintance of Chinese literature would know that Du Fu was the upright, engaged Confucian poet, and Li Bai, the Taoist free spirit who roamed the country and celebrated the joys of wine and song. They were embodiments of the yang and yin of the Tao, or the Way.
Tao is the harmonious balance in nature, in which man himself is a part of, not apart from.
Confucius (551 - 479 BC) saw the Tao as something that could be illuminated by etiquette, ritual and scholarship, for the benefit of the individual and his community. Tao could be best approached by social order with a clearly delineated hierarchy, and in which everyone had a clearly defined part to play. His was the yang way.
Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu were the Taoist sages who taught that to contrive order in nature was, in effect, to lose itñ why put legs on snakes? To abide by the Tao, and to govern in accordance to it, one must "let go".
The best government was the least government; the best life could only be lived by going along with the natural order of things, like grains in the wood. Words and therefore, the intellect, came between man and nature.
Their yin way of looking at the Tao contributed most to Chinese progress in the natural sciences, but it could also easily make for political anarchy.
No individual was all yang, or all yin. A proper balance of both, ever shifting according to circumstances, and never static at any one time, was the key to a long, healthy life.
Buddhism was introduced to China from India in the second century, but it was in the seventh century, after the Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, spent a 16-year pilgrimage in India and returned to convert emperor Tang Taizong that saw the fullest flowering of Chinese Buddhism, during a stable, culturally-rich and highly cosmopolitan phase of Chinese civilisation that lasted for two centuries.
It was into this great cultural ferment that Wang Wei (699- 761) was born, in the same year as Li Bai, and some years after the death of Xuanzang (602 - 664).
Wang Wei was a prodigy, accomplished in poetry, painting, calligraphy and musicñ he played the pipa or luteñand was caught up in the glittering court society almost immediately after he travelled from his home in Shansi to Chang'an, the capital, when he was 15.
By 23, he had passed the chin-shih, the highest court examination, and was made the assistant secretary for music. But he was soon a victim of court intrigues between the aristocrats and the scholars who mostly came up from humbler backgrounds through the imperial examinations, and was exiled to a minor provincial post in Shantung.
Wang Wei would lead an undistinguished official life but his various postings would allow him to travel across the country, and up to the frontier, where the vast level plane of the desert, with its breathtaking vistas and striking sunsets on the horizon, provided him and other Tang poets with the material for intensely moving and evocative poetry.
In her book on the poet Marsha L. Wagner of Columbia University points out: "Wang Wei's particular achievement was to use the broad panorama of the frontier as a backdrop against which to present a pattern of distinct images which became abstract in their geometric simplicity."
My Mission To The Frontier
A millennium afterwards, defiant Chinese artists like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou would use the frontier in their early films in a similar manner.
WANG WEI'S wife died when he was barely 30, and he never remarried. He had a cottage retreat about 50 km south-east of Chang'an, and this was where he would go to during holidays or in between postings. He wrote some of the best poems on solitude:
Visiting Hsiangchi Temple
As Vikram Seth, the now celebrated author of A Suitable Boy, who published his own translation of a collection of the poems of the three poets in 1992, says: "Wang Wei's typical mood is that of aloneness, quiet, a retreat into nature and Buddhism. What one associates with him are running water, evening and dawn, bamboo, the absence of men's voices. The word 'empty' is almost his signature."
Yet, the poet never gave up his official life, even though he had to do hack work for the court, write poems to celebrate this official or say farewell to another.
His cottage was not a hermit's hut; it was a large place, where he was surrounded by servants, and where he received friends often.
Like Li Bai and even Du Fu, he liked to have a cup of wine in his hand.
The recurrent intrigues in court and even the An Lushan Rebellion and his subsequent bloody rule left him relatively unscathed. He was not your airy-fairy poet, he was a resilient survivor.
I would like to think that he had the detachment of a Buddhist. Nothing was personal, court intrigues were just so much play, and what mattered was compassion and the spiritual life.
Still, he could not overcome vanity: He put his name to all his poems and paintings.
Wang Wei is my kind of hero.