and “An Account of Peach Blossom Spring" by Tao Qian
This essay is meant to compare to pieces by two of the best essayists of the Chinese literature: Su Shi and Tao Qian. First of all, I will present some historical background of these two authors, in order to better understand their circumstances and, therefore, their work. Then I will expose my thesis about these two wonderful pieces, to end up with the compare and contrast exercise and my conclusions.
"The Poetic Exposition on Red Cliff" by Su Shi
Su Shi (1037-1101 A.D.) was born in Mei-shan-xian city. His father, Xun Su, and younger brother, Che Su, were also famous essayists; nowadays, people refer to the three of them as the “Three Sus”. Su Shi, often referred to as Su Dongpo, lived under the Sung (or Song) Dynasty (960-1279). In 1057 Su passed the Palace Exam at the Board of Rites, and became the mayor’s assistant at Feng-xian-fu city, being later appointed Editor of Historial Records. After 1086, when Guang Si-ma became prime minister, Su became a member of the Royal Academy and was appointed imperial tutor; it was the Yuan-you period. Finally, in 1101 he died at Chanz-zhou city.
Su’s was a respected poet, essayist and calligrapher. The poem analyzed in this essay, "The Poetic Exposition on Red Cliff", is one of the most outstanding examples of rhymed prose, or fu, ever written (Marcus, 1999). This wonderful piece narrates a sort of dreamful voyage from reality to what we can not see, making at the same time a reflection about change and happiness. The voyage starts in a small, fragile boat, its guide left to the current; my thesis identifies this image with the fragility of our life: our life flows like a river, and we are like sailors in a boat. The boat can sink at any moment, or it can arrive safely to the most beautiful port; we do not have the way to know it. We just embark with our loved ones and drink and sing, trying to overcome tragedy as it comes. There is a very effective contrast between General Cao’s battle and the peace Su’s party are experiencing. The passage about Cao finishes stating that “he was a hero at his time, but where is he now?,” and right after he reflects “consider ourselves, by comparison” and starts depicting a quiet scenario full of peace and harmony. However, we can not forget that we are insignificant beings (“we are like a grain in the sea”) and our life is finite, although we have a natural desire for immortality (“I wish I could roam in the sky by grasping a flying fairy”).
The poem ends up with a reflection about constancy and change: we can state that change is continuous and inevitable (“the world cannot remain the same for longer than a moment”), or things always remain the same (“everything including us will last forever”), and both statements are true. From this point of view, the idea of possession does not make sense: nothing belongs to anybody. However, there are some exceptions to this general rule: we can make ours the breeze and the moon, representing what we can feel and see. We have our thoughts, and our memories, and the people we love to share them with.
“An Account of Peach Blossom Spring" by Tao Qian
The second author to be analyzed is Tao Qian (376-427), also never hold known as Tao Chien or Tao Yuanming. As opposed to Su Shi, his family was poor and he never occupied any high position in the Imperial Government. Tao accepted a minor official post in order to support his parents, but resigned after 10 years and went with his family to live in a farm in the country (“Tao Qian”). He lived under the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), in a period when China was divided into northern and southern dynasties (“Peach Blossom Spring”). It was a time of war and instability, both in the north and the south. In this context Tao Qian wrote the famous “Peach Blossom Spring” essay.
In this essay, Tao Qian narrates the story of a fisherman, who one day fall asleep when he was in a stream and wake up in a forest of peach trees in blossom, the air filled with a wonderful scent. The figure of the river and the fisherman offers a simile with our living our life: if we allow the river to lead us, we can find the most marvelous of secrets; if we allow destiny to guide us, we can end up in the most unexpected of places. But we have to be flexible and have a good heart: if not, we can spend the rest of our lives looking for some happiness and transcendence that we have first to deserve.
The fisherman then enters the forest, looking for its end, and finds “an opening which seemed to promise a gleam of light”. The light here can be interpreted as a sign of life, immortality, beauty all the good things that we dream of. The fisherman followd the light and found himself in a beautiful country setting. He finds men, women and children, all of the “cheerful and contented”. When his presence was noticed, he was invited into every house and told that they had arrived to that place escaping from “the troubles of the age of Ch’in”. This retiring to a stereotyped country surroundings have a clear parallelism with Tao’s own life: he god tired of the problems of the public service and decided to retire with his family to the country and lived till the end of his days in a farm.
The last part of Tao’s essay contains a warning: do not try to force your destiny and look for this hidden place, because you are not meant to find it on purpose. It finished noting that even “the virtuous hermit Liu Tzu-chi” was unable to find that secret place, dying before he could accomplish his plan. The message here is quite clear: it is not a question of being good or bad; happiness, realization, immortality whatever you name it, you are not going to find it: you have to complete the whole journey to arrive there.
Compare and Contrast Exercise
The first resemblance between these two stories is quite evident: in both, we are floating in a river with no control over where we are landing. They both give us a sense of the fragility of life and the importance of letting the boat follow its own course – that is, living our lives taking things as they come, and not forcing our destination. Therefore, both authors agree in the essential of their message.
However, there are some aspects that differentiate the two essays. The most relevant in my opinion, is that Su vision of life looks much more optimistic. He accepts that we are weak and finite, but there is a chance for touching, or at least dreaming, immortality. His prose irradiates melancholy, but also hope and a sense of continuity. Tao, on the other hand, looks more skeptic: the fisherman was told not to tell anyone about that place, but he did; the virtuous man tried to get there, but he died. This might reflect the difference in the lives of both poets: Su was a brilliant man working at the Imperial Service, while Tao came from an impoverished family and never had a great social position. Moreover, Su appreciated the study of Buddhism, along with other religious creeds, while Tao did not show that same interest; this is also reflected in their visions of life. Su finds we are given some precious gifts (the moon, the breeze, our loved ones) that we are meant to enjoy, while Tao feels much lonely, his fisherman along in his boat (instead of Su’s group of friends).
These are two extraordinary writers, in two of their probably most well known pieces. They both agree in the essential: life is fragile and finite, and we flow through it hoping to reach a better place, name it immortality, happiness or destiny. There are also obvious differences between them, due to their different social and historical situation, but they both use a sort of parable to tell us their reflections about life and our role in it.
Marcus, Morton. “The Fu: China and the Origins of the Prose Poem.” The Prose Poem: An International Journal 8 (1999). Web. 6 Feb. 2013.
“Peach Blossom Spring by Tao Qian. Primary Source Document with Questions (DBSs).” Asia for Educators. Columbia University. Web. 7 Feb. 2013.
“Tao Qian (Chinese poet).” Enciclopaedia Britannica. Web. 7 Feb. 2013.
Walker, Caroline Marie, et al. On leaving Bai Di Cheng: the Culture of China’s Yangzi Gorges. Toronto: New Canada Publications, 1993. Print.