Wang River Poems

Dan Veach



Wang River Poems is the most famous poetic duet in Chinese literature. Visiting twenty locations in
the Wang River valley, Wang Wei and Pei Di each wrote a four-line poem about each place, giving
us a binocular vision unique in world literature. This rare complete translation includes a life in poetry of Wang Wei, one of the most remarkable poets who ever lived.



The Poet and the Dragon Throne

Government is not the place one would look for poetry these days, but it wasn’t always that way.
In ancient China, poetry was woven into the daily fabric of everyone’s life at court. A favorite game
at palace banquets was to compose a group poem, each person adding a line to top the one before it.
(No doubt it helped to be slightly drunk.) Ability to improvise poems at the drop of a hat was especially important to high officials: they could be challenged by the Emperor to compose one—

often in reply to his own—at any moment.

Li Yu, the last Emperor of the Tang, even wrote poetry from prison after his dynasty was overthrown. In fact, Li’s poems became so popular—even at the new Emperor’s court—that the usurper finally became jealous and sent Li a cup of poisoned wine. And so the last Emperor of the Tang died, quite literally, for poetry.

A Window on the Court

A few of Wang Wei’s official court poems give us a fascinating glimpse of China’s Dragon Throne
at the peak of its glory—and the “invisible” man behind those seemingly transparent nature poems.

We start with a look at the Imperial Court itself through Wang Wei’s eyes. He held the position of “Admonitor on the Left,” charged with correcting (very diplomatically, no doubt) any mistakes the Emperor might make!

Wang River Poems

On a deeper level, the most hotly-debated question to this day is whether Wang Wei intended these
apparently simple nature poems to convey a hidden spiritual meaning. The debate over “Deer Enclosure” starts with the very first word. Does the character
kong simply mean “empty” (nobody there), or is it the emptiness of Buddhism’s all-encompassing Void? Is the light entering the forest the setting sun, or an inner enlightenment? Is the green moss simply nature’s humble carpet, or a symbol for the poet himself, equally humble and grateful for the light he has been given?

Perhaps the debate itself is “empty.” In one of his few statements about poetry, Wang Wei says that, for him, the physical world is just as “spiritual” as the spiritual world. The natural world of these poems is not subordinate, a mere metaphor or symbol for the spiritual. Rather, the meaning here is “hidden” in plain sight. For Wang Wei, as a Buddhist and as a poet, everything—mountain, moss, and man—is ultimately “empty,” ultimately equal, and ultimately one.

Copyright 2012 by Daniel Veach

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