The cohesive dynastic narrative, tracing one large continuous period to another, Qin to Han, Tang to Song, leaves a yawning gap for the period between Han and Sui. The Wei, The Six Dynasties, The Sixteen Kingdoms. I’ve been interested in this “early medieval” period for while now. Decentralized, but unlike the fall of Rome, the realm was still intellectually electric, this is when Buddhism for example, properly begins to metastasize throughout the civilization. The Cambridge History of China series, had never published the volume for this period until just recently. It is during this period, in the Eastern Jin (the second of the Six Dynasties) that Tao Yuan Ming ‘returned home’ and cultivated the life of an aesthetic scholar recluse.
Thursday morning distracted, I read “In Reply to Aide P’ang”” and thought immediately of a friend with whom I’d spoke on the phone, not so long before. The client call faded in importance as my eyes read once and then again, this fearless attestation to friendship. Transcribing it in full, I shot it off to my chum suggesting the afterglow of our call:
"I read the poem with which you presented me over and over and could not stop even if I had wished. Since you became my neighbour, winter has a second time merged into spring. Sincerely we have formed an excellent relationship, swiftly we have become old friends. There is a common saying: 'Several meetings create friendship'. How much our feeling surpasses this! Yet human affairs are prone to go awry, and so we have to speak of parting. Over what Master Yang sighed at, surely I have no ordinary grief. I have been ill for many years and no longer write. From the first I was not gifted and now I am old and sick as well. Yet since I always follow the Chou rites' principle of reciprocation, I shall rely on my affection for you after our parting.
Why should it need an old friend to appreciate one?
A 'lowered canopy' can do away with previous words.
There is a guest who approves my tastes;
Always he admires my woods and garden.
In our talk and accord there are no common modes;
What we discuss are the books of the sages.
Sometimes we have several gallons of wine
Which drinking at leisure, we enjoy ourselves.
Truly I am a scholar in retirement
And no longer involved with going to and fro
'In things the new, with men it is the old'
So with a feeble brush much may be conveyed.
Our feelings may reach beyond ten thousand li.
While our bodies are barred by rivers and hills.
May you be careful of yourself!
When will our next meeting be?
The spring of 423 AD
This morning, Saturday morning, I allowed myself the luxury of just reading. I finished off the two volumes of Tao’s poetry. Compiled by the late A. R. Davis, much of his commentary tends to be about dismissing arguments for one or another date for the particular poems. He must have been an angular professor. Though he does rise to wonder in his commentary on this particular piece, stating: “This poem may indeed rank as an outstanding poem of friendship in a literature which is very rich in examples of this categories.” My wife informs me that the very mention of the poet’s name invokes a feeling of withdrawal from the coils of public life to quiet resignation of a simple life in the country to any educated Chinese person. And there are many wonderful invocations of this sentiment to consider and reflect upon personally. Happily there is also a racy, erotically charged side of the recluse, also on display in “Quieting the Affections” that reads more like “Gypsy Woman” than the following of the Dao.
"She lifts the red curtain and seats her self correctly;
Lightly touches the shirll cithern for her own pleasure.
She releases the abundandt loveliness of her sldender fingers
And stirs the dancing of her wihite sleeves
She flashes her beautiful eyes in a circling glance
One acannot tell weather she is smiling or not
The tune is almost half over.
Tha sun sinks by the wester room . . . "
A. R. Davis comments: "The incongruity of the pice among T'ao's surviving work has been apparent not merely to modern Western readers. It drew a mild reproach from T'al's early biographer and editor, Hsiao T'ung, who described it in his preface to the collected works as the only 'slight flaw in the white jade' . . . "
Looking over the stack on my desk. I’ve lined up ten or so China titles I’ve gobbled up recently. To left are sixteen or so titles that await being read. Chronologically? Perhaps I should proceed that way. In which case the earliest title I should move to is “The Four Books – The Great Learning, The Analects, Mencius and Maintaining Perfect Balance.” Written nearly eight hundred years before Tao Yuan Ming, these fundamental classics are arranged in this volume to illustrate some of the great Song scholar Zhu Xi’s (1130 – 1200) study notes. These became the must read, orthodox interpretation for all the subsequent exam students during the Ming and the Qing. Holding this little volume, I’m reminded that scholars spent decades trying to memorize the contents, and later Zhu Xi’s critique. To think of all the eyes that have gazed upon these words.