Xie Lingyun, the Chinese-born poet, is one of the earliest people who extensively applied the theme of nature in their poems. Although there is evidence to show that he is not the only Chinese poet to have used images of nature to express ideas, Xie Lingyun’s landscape poetry is more elaborate than the conventional philosophical poetry employed by other poets preceding him. Influenced by his early interactions with Daoism and Buddhism (later in life), Xie Lingyun’s poetry “contains elaborate descriptions of nature in which mountains and waters become objects of aesthetic gaze” (Cai 130). Many of his poems bring out the beauty of nature in ways that no other poet does; most of his poetry conveys the aesthetic nature of mountains and rivers thus making “mountains and rivers” a subject of poetry in its own right. Xie Lingyun’s poetry is rich with the theme of nature, something attributable to his love for nature and early exposure to Daoism.
Xie Lingyun fell in love with nature in his real-life. Therefore, it is little wonder that his landscape poetry is based on physical and intimate interaction with nature thus giving him the authority to give a vivid description of the object at hand. For example, he tours the Zhejiang landscape with admirable enthusiasm, and even designs his own wooden clog to hike up and down the mountains (Cai 130). As a result, the poet’s extensive use of nature themes in his poems is a true manifestation of his enthusiasm about nature. His physical interaction with nature plays a crucial part in his life because it quenches his thirst for spiritual enlightenment. Probably, this facilitates the elaborate manner in which he describes the nature and landscape in his poems.
True to his nature of writing, Xie’s landscape poems are complex and filled with obscure words. Nevertheless, the beautiful representations of landscape enliven the subject and offer a profound insight into the poet’s writing and thoughts. For example, in the poem Climbing Yongjia’s Green Crag Mountain, the poet gives a lively description that captures the reader’s imagination. “I packed some provisions and grabbed a light staff. Following the winding path, I climbed to my hidden abode. As I proceeded upstream, the path wound further away. When I reached the peak, my emotions were not yet exhausted” (Cai 131). In this poem, Xie paints a picturesque description of his journey. The image presented transcends through time and space, making the reader an active participant throughout the journey.
The intensity of the description combined with the other literal devices makes Xie stand out from other poets using a similar writing style. In addition, the candid description of nature given by the poet in the opening lines proves that the poet wants to give a vivid description of landscape and emotion instead of adopting the “philosophical poetry model where natural imagery predominantly serves as the metaphor for ideas or a literal background for figures or events of the poem” (Cai 130). Nature is at the core of many of his poems, and this is unlike other poets who use sporadic images of nature to bring out specific aspects of their poems.
Modern scholars agree that Xie’s work is identical in that it contains structural components such as journey narration, scene description, stirred emotion and philosophical meditation. For example, in Climbing Yongjia’s Green Crag Mountain, the poet begins by describing his journey. “I packed some provisions and grabbed a light staff. Following the winding path, I climbed to my hidden abode” (Cai 131). A vivid scene description follows in the next sentences “As I proceeded upstream, the path wound further away” (Cai 131). An emotional narration then follows the scene description “When I reached the peak, my emotions were not yet exhausted” (Cai 131). Lastly, the poet engages in a candid meditation as evidenced by the lines “In quietude I entrust myself to an all-embracing unity as tranquillity and knowledge conjoin” (Cai 131).
This pattern of narration occurs in almost every of Xie’s poems; starting with journey narration, a vivid description of the scene, a description of the poet’s emotions and ending with a description of the poet’s meditation. The style characterizes Xie’s work and makes it stand out from the rest of the poets. However, Xie’s style of writing does not include the four aspects discussed only; his works also encompass allusions to Yijing, a recurrent source for Xie’s work. For Xie, Yijing represents a microcosm of the realm of heaven and earth (Cai 132). That relationship between the earth, the heaven and humans, with Yijing acting as the mediator, is the subject of many of Xie’s landscape poetry. The interrelationship is replicated in Xie’s poems through structural sequences of natural scenes, Yijing allusions, and decisions on the outcomes of the new course of action (Cai 132). The allusions give a rough idea of Xie’s religious beliefs; they convey a Daoist approach to life. In Daoism, the peaceful co-existence of the earth, the heavens and humans is vital. This is the balance that Xie strives to portray in his poems, thus displaying his believe in Daoism.
In Climbing Yongjia’s Green Crag Mountain, for instance, the subtle allusions to Yijing cannot be ignored. In line 13, for example, the word decay alludes to the Top Yang of the hexagram Gu (Decay): “He does not serve kings and prices/Sets himself higher goals” (Cai 132). Line 14, which uses the word treading alludes to the Second Yang of the hexagram Lu (treading): “The path to tread on is level and smooth, and if one secluded here practise constancy, he will have a good fortune” (Cai 132). Both allusions portray a man whose pursuits are beyond fame and wealth offered by the officialdom; prospects of worldly success do not seduce him, and he constantly keeps a level way. This behaviour is consistent with Daoism; the Dao envision a path that is free from dangerous obstacles. To the Dao, a simple and fulfilling life is better than the traps of power, fame, material possessions, and other worldly attributes that prevent human beings from achieving their true purpose in life. The allure of worldly possessions and fame does not supersede the inner gratification provided by living in harmony with the world.
In the allusion described earlier, the poet is stating (in no uncertain terms) that he would not allow the affairs of the government to shackle him. Instead, he will enjoy the good fortune of visiting the famous Yongjia. Yongjia offers him the solace that no amount of riches and fame can bring to the poet. True to his Daoist beliefs, he would rather spend most of time visiting the mountains and watching the waters instead of getting himself trapped in the confines of power and governance issues. He remains sceptical of the things considered important by those in power. Although this could also be interpreted as criticism to the government, this not entirely true because the poet stays true to his quest for inner peace, and uses poetry to express his ideas on nature without inviting criticism to the government. Therefore, his distaste for fame and governance is not the main theme of his poems, but an offshoot.
The use of Yijing allusion signals the poet’s intention to establish a signifying relation between the particulars of the natural world and his own situation (Cai 132). Therefore, this affirms the link between the realm of the heaven-and earth and the realm of human affairs. As stated earlier, the interrelationship between the earth, humans and heaven is significant to the Dao. Therefore, it is little wonder that Xie expresses this concept in many of his poems. Although they do not form the pivotal point of Xie’s poems, allusions to Yijing bridge the passage from natural scenes to inner transformation. Nonetheless, the appearance of the Yijing allusions reveals the harmony between the poet and his surroundings. Therefore, in this case, the Yijing allusion acts as the catalyst to that union.
Apart from Climbing Yongjia’s Green Crag Mountain, the theme of mountains and rivers also forms the subject of Xie Lingyun’s another poem What I Observed as I Crossed the Lake on My Way from Southern Mountain to Northern Mountain. Unlike Climbing Yongjia’s Green Crag Mountain, this poem is straightforward and familiar; the poet tours the mountains and the waters and tells us what he sees and thinks (Cai 133). Throughout the poem, ambivalent nature is evident, and this ambivalence is aimed at mystifying the picture than at providing comprehensive representation that transcends time and space. Characteristic to his style, the poet employs journey narration, scene description, stirred emotion and philosophical meditation. In addition, the poet uses Yijing allusion to conform to his Daoist beliefs.
In conclusion, Xie Lingyun’s poetry conveys his admiration for nature, especially mountains and rivers. In almost each of his poems, nature occupies the centrepiece of his poems. Xie Lingyun’s admiration for mountains and rivers can be traced to his early interactions with Daoism and Buddhism later in life, making nature an obvious choice for discussion in his poems. Through allusions to Yijing, Xie Lingyun expresses the need for peaceful coexistence between the earth, the heaven and humans, which is consistent with Daoist beliefs. In addition, the poet portrays the belief that enjoying the peaceful coexistence is better than wealth and fame offered by governments and officialdom. To the poet, inner gratification cannot be obtained from worldly possessions and positions.
Cai, Zong-qi. How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology . New York, NY : Columbia University Press, 2013 . Print.