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Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China - 2003-02-16

Poetry has been a life force in Chinese literature for more than three thousand years. Wilderness poems, written between the 5th and 14th centuries, are among the most vibrant and popular expressions of this art form. A recently published anthology gives poets from this golden age of Chinese poetry a new voice in English. The ecological worldview that informs the work has a remarkably contemporary quality.

One of the ancient Chinese poems David Hinton has translated into English for his new collection is called Egrets. As he reads, it is hard to believe this poem was written 1,200 years ago.

"Robes of snow, crests of snow, and beaks of azure jade,
they fish in shadowy streams.
Then startling up into
Flight, they leave emerald mountains for lit distances.
Pear blossoms, a tree-full, tumble in the evening wind."

Egrets is one of more than 200 works David Hinton has translated and brought together in his new book, "Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China."

Mr. Hinton studied ancient Chinese in college. He lived for a year in Taipei, Taiwan, where he taught English, practiced calligraphy and began his first translation. He has earned wide acclaim for translations of masterworks of Chinese poetry and philosophy. Mr. Hinton says he always works hard to preserve the spirit of the original. "When I make a poem in English out of the Chinese poem I am sort of making my own poem, seeing the world the same way they see it," he says.

The poets, all of whom are literary giants in China, use wilderness poetry to project a worldview in which humans are part of nature and not separate from it. "These poems would be called 'nature poems' in the West, and that word in itself reveals the western assumption about the world because [in the West] nature means every thing that is not human. But that dichotomy doesn't exist in ancient China. In ancient China 'dwelling' was part of a natural process," he says. "What the poets were doing was writing out of that worldview and about their everyday life."

At the core of this ancient poetry is what Chinese call the Ten Thousand Things, or all things animate and inanimate in the universe. David Hinton explains that these Ten Thousand Things are reflected in the cycle of the seasons and in the Buddhist spirit of emptiness. "What the Chinese thought natural process was, was that we each come or appear out of nothing and we exist for our lives and sort of disappear into the Ten Thousand Things," he says. "And the emptiness is that which is before and after each thing that we come out of and go back into and they thought of that as the core of natural process, the heart of it. So that was the most real thing. All of the real things in the empirical world, the Ten Thousand Things are all sort of fleeting, but that emptiness stays."

"This is by Cold Mountain. He took his name from the mountain he lived on. The legend is [that] he wrote his poems on tree trunks and stones, and that a local government official came along and admired him so much as a great master, a great Zen master, that he collected all of these poems off the rocks and trees," he says. "That why [the poems] don't have titles, just numbers." "This is number 163"

"I've lived out tens of thousand of years
on Cold Mountain. Given to the seasons,
I vanished among forests and cascades,
gazed into things so utterly themselves.
No one ventures up into all these cliffs
hidden forever in white mist and cloud.
It's just me, thin grass my sleeping mat
and azure heaven my comforting quilt:
Happily pillowed on stone, I've given to
heaven and earth changing on and on."

Skirble: "Why do these poems seem so contemporary to us?"
Hinton: "I think the first reason, the most fundamental reason, is that they come out of a worldview that is so close to ours now. That is, it is secular. And, also because it is so much about immediate experience and that is something that we all share. And, there is not abstract thinking or elaborate metaphors that are embedded in the culture, for instance."
Skirble: "Are there any others that you are dying to read to me?"
Hinton: "I don't know if I am dying to read them."
Skirble: "Well, I'm dying for you to read this one on page 262."
Hinton:"OK. This is by Yang Wan-Li, the last poet in the anthology. So, it was written around the late 1100s."

"On a Boat Crossing Hesih Lake"

"I pour out a cup or two of emerald wine inside the cabin.
The door wings, closed, then back open onto exquisite
Ranged mountains: ten thousand wrinkles unseen by anyone,
and every ridge hand-picked by the late sun's slant light."

Skirble: "What do you hope the reader, the western English speaker takes away from these poems?"
Hinton:"First, just the beauty and a sense of belonging to wilderness. Also, I see this as part of a political project, of moving forward this sort of environmental politics. It is not until people feel themselves as a part of the world that they are really going to take care of it.

As long as people's spirits which is the old western view that spirits are materially different from the world and that the world is just here for us to use until you get past that worldview you are not going to make that much progress in terms of trying to protect the ecosystem."

David Hinton says among his next projects is a translation of the Book of Songs, a collection of some of the earliest Chinese poetry, written between the 7th and 12th centuries and originally compiled by the famed Chinese philosopher, Confucius.