Mountain Home: Nature & the Writer
Next week, I will be speaking about my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool – A Daoist Quest, at a local library. Many writers like to talk about how they came to write their novels or how they managed to get it published as there is a strong interest in writing and publishing among the general public. Since my background and my genre, wuxia, are a bit unusual, I tend to talk about how I came to this genre and usually end up just outlining the novel in order to give the audience time for questions.
Naturally, the best of all possible audiences would include a number of people who have already read the novel, and even better, have also familiarized themselves with my website and blogs. No doubt, that is very wishful “author-think.”
Yet, there is so much to say about the wuxia genre and its literary tradition – some of that is on my website’s Wandering Blades Blog. Add to that the fact that the protagonist of my novel is the great Chinese poet, Li Bo (701-762 A.D.). There’s a lot to talk about!
This week, David Hinton reminded me about that latter aspect as I read through his delightful collection of Chinese poetry translations. Hinton’s work, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (ISBN: 0811216241) puts forth the idea that there was a genre of Chinese poetry – “wilderness” or “rivers-and-mountains” poetry - that wrote about “Nature” in a unique way – where a sense of dichotomy between the observer and the object being observed was lacking. Hinton explains in his introduction:
Originating in the early 5th century C.E. and stretching across two millennia,
’s tradition of rivers-and-mountains (shan-shui) poetry represents the earliest and most extensive literary engagement with wilderness in human history. Fundamentally different from writing that employs the “natural world” as the stage or materials for human concerns, this poetry articulates a profound and spiritual sense of belonging to a wilderness of truly awesome dimensions. This is not wilderness in the superficial sense of “nature” or “landscape,” terms the Western cultural lens has generally applied to this most fundamental aspect of Chinese poetry. “Nature” calls up a false dichotomy between human and nature, and “landscape” suggests a picturesque realm seen from spectator’s distance—but the Chinese wilderness is nothing less than a dynamic cosmology in which humans participate in the most fundamental way. China
Hinton goes on to explain that the Chinese, influenced by both Taoism and Chan/Zen Buddhism, discovered a profound sense of enlightenment in their “observation” of Nature. They merged with Nature and found “self”-expression through the “10,000 things” - a classical Chinese expression for the natural world. He concludes that such poetry was at the same time both secular and religious. The rest of Hinton’s book collects his translations of 5th century to 13th century A.D. Chinese poets that represent “wilderness poetry.” Li Bo, my protagonist, is included.
There is no doubt that Li Bo had this aspect of his poetry, but, like any complex character, he also had other dimensions. Scholars of Chinese literature will tell you that Li Bo possessed a huge ego and was perhaps one of the first Chinese poets to appreciate the use of “public relations” in building his reputation. Chinese sources and Li Bo’s own poetry make much of his fondness for wine. Chinese poets were noted for their use of the fermented fruit to inspire their poetry by dissolving obstructions between watcher – watched / poet - Nature. Scholars are not sure how much of this Li Bo constructed in order to feed his audience the persona of a poetic genius who could dash off brilliant poetry under the most inebriated conditions. There is little doubt from the historical record that he was and remains a very popular figure in Chinese culture.
Thankfully, as a novelist, I do not get involved in such academic ponderings. Rather, I believe that when building characters, “dimensions fascinate.” So “my” Li Bo has both these aspects: he loves to drink and he knows how to be a clear headed realist when the situation calls for it. My goal is to make all the characters in my novels fascinating so that the story remains with the readers after the book is finished.
Yet there is little doubt that much of my writing is influenced by this “wilderness literature” approach. For years, I enjoyed cycling and traveling through the mountains, experiencing the mist, fog, spectacular rock formations, and scenery that are unique to southern Chinese geography. Reading this genre of poetry, I can hardly contain my sense of inspiration.
With these thoughts in mind, I would like to leave you today with a wonderful poem by Li Bo’s friend - the other poet the Chinese honor as their “greatest”- Tu Fu (712-770 A.D.) translated by my old friend, “Red Pine.” In this poem, Tu Fu wonders if being a writer was not a useless occupation.
Recording My Thoughts While Traveling at Night
A shore of thin reeds in light wind
a tall boat alone at night
stars hang over the barren land
the moon rises out of the Yangtze
how could writing ever lead to fame
I quit my post due to illness and age
drifting along what am I like
a solitary gull between Heaven and Earth
Poems of the Masters:
In some later blog, I’ll come back to Hinton’s Introduction as he also raises interesting points on the relevance of this Chinese poetry genre to ecology and gender.