The Poems of Wang Wei (699-759)

The Tang dynasty was the pinnacle of Chinese culture, a golden period when painting, sculpture, calligraphy and literature nurtured each other with unsurpassed flourish.

Tang poetry, even at its most melancholic, is unforgettable for its painterly imagery combined with lyrical beauty. Wang Wei (699-759) was one of the great poets of that age. He was an aristocrat, born with a silver writing brush. He was a musician of surpassing skill and a landscape painter so innovative that he is said to have changed landscape painting from his time forward. Most importantly, he was a poet of consummate skill. His poetry is a record of a long struggle to be free of desire, free even from the desire to be free. The great Sung poet Su Shih said that Wang Wei’s poems are paintings and his paintings, poems. Wang Wei’s readers invariably find themselves inside his poems. Something is happening there. They can’t put a finger on it except that they know they’re in the presence of poetic genius.

Below is curated selection of Wang Wei’s poems. I’ve read them over and over, and each time, find new revelations and new joys. I hope you will enjoy them too.

Selected Poems of Wang Wei

The Bamboo Groves

Sitting alone
in a recess of the bamboo groves,
I play the lute,
and whistle a long time.

No one else is visible
In the depth of the woods.
The bright moon
moves over, shining.

The Farm by the Wei River

I love the way the afternoon sun spreads across the village;
the paths through which cattle and sheep return,
past the old man waiting for his shepherd son;
the sound of the pheasants’ call;
the rustle of heavily leaden ears of grain;
silkworms sleeping after their feast of mulberry leaves;
farmers returning home, carrying their tools and talking as friends together.
This is the good life I long for,
so I sing the songs of the ancients
“Let Me Return Again”

A Lonely Orchid

A lonely orchid in a deserted courtyard is blooming
despite weeds that spring up around.
Together they grow,
together they are cut down by the cold.
Though it has the warmth of springtime,
yet with autumn it knows
the time has come to die.
Frosts have already started;
green leaves and pretty flowers begin to fade.
If no breeze comes,
who will smell its sweetness?

Farewell at Chingwen

Over the ferry coming to Chingmen
Travelling in this land of Chu
where the hills step down to flat land,
through the waste the Great River sweeps down.
I look at the wonder of the moon in heaven,
seeming to me like a flying mirror,
stare at the picture a cloud forms of a sea
with a tall tower standing up from it.
All beautiful, yet none as lovely as my old home.
No matter how far I roam,
ever I wish to take a boat
and return again.

Ma Yuan (c 1160-1225), Walking a path in Spring, Song Dynasty (960-1279),
Album leaf, ink and color on silk, 27.4 x 43.1 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei

My Cottage in Deep South Mountain

In my middle years, I love the Tao
and at Deep Mountain I make my home.
When happy, I go into the mountains.
Only I understand this joy.
I walk until the water ends,
and sit, waiting for the clouds to rise.
If I happen to meet an old woodcutter,
I chat with him,
laughing and lost in time.

Windy Hiss of Autumn Rain

In the windy hiss of autumn rain
shallow water fumbles over stones.
Waves dance and fall on each other:
a white egret startles,
then falls.

Peasants in the Wei River

Cows and sheep straggle down the deep alley
as the afternoon sun slants through the village.
An old man at the cane gate leans on his stick,
watching for the young cowherd.
Pheasants sing to ears of sprouting wheat
while silkworms sleep by the mulberry leaves.
Farmers walk home with hoes on their shoulders, chatting lazily.
I envy this life and sing:
“Why not return?”

Green Creek

To find the meadows by the Yellow Flower River
you must follow Green Creek
as it turns endlessly in the mountains.
In just a hundred miles,
water bounds noisily over the rocks,
color softens in the dense pines.
Weeds and water chestnuts are drifting,
Lucid water mirrors the reeds.
My heart has always been serene and lazy
like peaceful Green Creek.
Why not loaf on a large flat rock,
dangling my fishhook here forever?

Mi Youren (1074–1151), Poetic Ideas, Song dynasty handscroll, ink on paper, 29 x 149 cm. Private collection.

From ‘The Value of Quiet

With age, I learn the value of quiet
and feel apart from crowds.
Detachment has come to me.
As the day leaves, I light the oil lamp,
and at nightfall I play the singing stone bells
Tranquility as brought me happiness,
life is slow and full of leisure.
Why worry deeply about return
when body and world are like empty void?

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