Hsieh Ling-yün: Wilderness Poet and Recluse

Hsieh Ling-yun (385-433) was China's first shan-shui or wilderness poet. His fame is largely overshadowed by his contemporary Tao-Chien, also a nature poet but whose themes are less the rugged and wild and more attuned to tien-yuan or "fields and gardens." Where Tao-Chien wrote of domestic and quiet rural settings, Ling-yun traveled incessantly and delighted in great rivers, rugged mountains, and the enormous scope of open landscapes. Both poets shared a similar Taoist conception of nature. And both wrestled with the incessant desire for an eremitic life: the classic dilemma of reclusion versus service.

Ling-yun lived in the shadow of illustrious aristocratic ancestors. As General of Horse and Chariot, Ling-yun's grandfather had commanded an army in a battle that rescued the emperor, after which his grandfather retired. Ling-yun said of him that he had gauged that "the Way of gentlemen had declined" and thus reclused himself.

He shook the dust from his clothes among the Fire Lakes,
went into the mountains and dug deep pools,
planted elm and catalpa trees along the crags.
He followed his heart and abandoned this dusty world,
gazing with clear eyes on the beauty of hills and gorges.

Ling-yun's father held prominent offices in the palace. But Ling-yun was eccentric and foppish, excelling in calligraphy and literary arts. In a turbulent political era, his wealth and dissipation protected him, but he was opinionated and readily offended. As he grew older, Ling-yun sought the patronage of one official or Hsieh family connection after another, accruing friends due to his family name and his growing reputation as a national poet. But he was torn between the example of his ancestors and the impulses of his temper.

In 422, with the downfall of his patron the Crown Prince, Ling-yun was banished to distant southeastern China with the title of Grand Warden. Isolation from the palace and his artistic circle of friends was a harsh blow. He tried to be positive, interpreting his fate in a positive way.

All my life I longed to become a hermit,
But I went astray, brought low by my own weakness.
For long my heart was set on an official career,
but now at last I can wander away.
My cherished hope is being fulfilled.
The plaudits of the world are but empty shells.

And again he told himself:

Joy and sorrow come and go in turn:
Now failure daunts us, now success cheers us.
I prefer to be free of all this;
Against all the world I choose Simplicity.

At this time, Ling-yun was a middle-aged 38 years old, spending a harsh winter alone and far fro friends, apparently sick with tuberculosis. He writes of this early period in exile: "I lie on my sick bed and watch the empty forest" and "Repeated illness has made me despair of life."

Too recently separated from his urban coterie and amusements, he wonders:

Easy to kill time when living alone,
But hard to settle one's mind when away from old friends.
I must resolve to be as content as the men of old,
to prove even now that I have no regrets.

But he concludes that due to his banishment, "I shall stay in seclusion forever." Ling-yun begins to assess his life. He is attracted to philosophical Taoism but also to its religious and esoteric side, especially with the promise of health and healing. Buddhism also interests him. His physical state improving, Ling-yun sets off tramping through the rugged mountains, forests, and lakes of the district, inspired to compose nature poems.

I wander these winds, boundless and clear,
and the headlong rush of autumn streams.
Rivers and mountains open forth,
with dazzling sun and clouds before me.
Twilight's clarity infuses everything.
Nature fills me with rapturous joy.
[from "Hsin-an, Tung-lu Mountain"]

Although none of his poems earlier than this period have survived, the poetry from Ling-yun's exile in Shih-ning display a wildly romantic appreciation for nature not witnessed in the Chinese poets before him. Clearly Ling-yun had found a happy niche.

In "Stone Gate Mountain's Highest Peak," Ling-yun's careful eye observes the details of his wilderness setting.

At dawn, staff in hand, I climb the crags,
and by dusk settle among the mountains.
Scarcely a peak rises as high as this hut
facing crags and overlooking winding streams.
Forests stretch before the mountain's open gate
boulders heaped round its very steps.
Mountains crowd around, blocking out roads.
Trails wander into bamboo thickets.
Visitors lose their way on coming up
or forget the paths leading home when they descend.
Raging torrents rush through the dusk,
Monkeys howl throughout the night.
Deep in meditation I hold the inner pattern,
nurturing the Way, never severing from it.
My heart is one with the autumn trees,
My eyes delight in the flowering of spring.
I inhabit the constant and await my end,
Content to dwell in peace, accepting the flux of things.
I only regret that there is no kindred spirit here
to climb this ladder of sky and clouds with me.

In this splendid poem, Ling-yun employs the successful technique of the wilderness genre: a detailed catalog of natural sights in scintillating detail, described from an intimate first-hand experience, followed by deep philosophical reflection and an expression of meaning.

This identification of meaning in Nature brings Ling-yun to an appreciation of the classic hermits. In another wilderness poem ("Climbing Green-Crag Mountain in Yung-chia"), he writes:

A hermit will always walk the level Way,
Yet his goal lies higher than anyone knows:
Utter tranquility, no distinction between this and that.
I will embrace this primal unity,
wisdom and silence woven together,
nature thereafter healing me.

Regaining a sense of confidence, Ling-yun purchased an estate with his wealth, spending money on furnishings and landscape. He summons friends to assuage his loneliness, and invites two Buddhist monks of his acquaintance to reside on his grounds in a ching-she or small meditation hut of several rooms, which becomes the setting of extended philosophical conversations.

We know that Ling-yun had a wife and son, who would have followed him here from the capital. Ling-yun acknowledges that while woodcutters and hermits inhabit the mountains, their motives and forms of life differ -- here alluding to his own life. He reflects (in "Third Valley of Ma-yuan") that

Since this hill once deigned to be a hermit's refuge,
Surely it will shelter again a sage in happy retreat.

Occasionally he writes like his contemporary Tao-Chien in moments of domesticity, as in these passages (from "In the Southern Field I Plant a Garden"):

Among these hills and gardens I've regained my health.
The garden blocks noise and the winds of turmoil.
Pristine solitude summons distant winds.
My house is on the Northern Hill,
Doors open onto a southern river.
A stream eliminates the need for a well.
Hibiscus on terraced banks serves as a wall.
From my door I view a grove of trees
and a mountain-range from my window.
A winding trail leads to fields below.
In the distance I gaze at towering peaks.
My desires are few, my ease is safeguarded.

But Ling-yun neglected his duties as Grand Warden. His ostentatious wealth and far-flung landscape projects, including an ambitious plan to drain a lake defined as commons and a food source for surrounding peasants and gentry, garnered him enemies. Yet he seemed oblivious to these concerns. His health continued to elude him, and he vowed not only to regain it but to join the Immortals: "I shall cheat old age by Taoist arts."

Commentator Frodsham notes the wavering of Ling-yun's eremitic ideals.

How much the classical ideal of the hermit had changed during the fourth century. At one time the typical hermit, whether Taoist or not, returned to the fastness of the mountain wilds where, living in a "hut of tumbleweeds" with "a cracked jar for a window." ... He wrested a living from the soil with his own hands ... Not for him [i.e, the 4th-century counterpart] the harsh labours of the hermits of old. The gentleman was now expected to retire from the world in order to preserve himself from harm and give himself the opportunity of practicing Taoist arts.

And one time, Ling-yun admitted (in "Setting Out from Kuei-Lai") that:

When I withdrew from the world in search of a quiet life,
What did I know of the hardships a hermit must endure?

But Frodsham's assessment is not entirely fair. Esoteric Taoists like the celebrated Ko Hung always maintained that becoming a hermit was only preliminary to becoming an Immortal -- whatever that meant of the form of eremitism. At the same time, Ling-yun was, as suggested earlier, greatly influenced by the Confucian ideal of reclusion exemplified by his grandfather. Thus a strong moral element undermines both Ling-yun's social comfort and his political acumen, the latter lacking almost altogether. As Frodsham himself states in a later passage:

Ling-yun's eremitism had a strong Confucian flavor to it. Like Tao Yuan-ming [i.e., Tao-Chien], he was at heart loyal to the Chin dynasty, though unlike Tao he lacked the moral fibre which would have forbidden him to serve the Sung.

Later Years

This is a crucial point in the chronology of Ling-yun: the re-emergence of peasant and gentry enemies disputing his estate holdings, his landscape projects, and, undoubtedly, his popularity -- for Ling-yun was now China's most popular poet.

After the 426 coup of Wen-ti and the Hsu faction, Ling-yun was especially vulnerable. His Hsieh clansmen had been among the enemies of the Hsu, and Ling-yun himself was a friend of the executed Crown Prince. Summoned to court, Ling-yun was offered the post of Director of the Imperial Library. As a prominent figure in an opposition family and a well-known literati, his acceptance would be deemed a legitimizing gesture. But twice Ling-yun was summoned and twice pleaded sickness. Finally the new emperor Wei-ti  himself asked an old friend of Ling-yun to intercede with an offer he could not refuse. Ling-yun had to accede.

Thus Ling-yun lost his seclusion and journeyed to the capital, where he assigned the task of compiling a catalog of Chinese literature, then a catalog of chancellery documents. After a few perfunctory months of duty, taking advantage of a plague in the city, Ling-yun took leave and revisited his old Shiih-ning estate. When he did not return to the capital, he was summarily dismissed. Ling-yun was relieved to go back to reclusion, but he naively took no notice of his grave political slight to the new regime.

But now Ling-yun realized how much he disdained the new Sung regime in a profoundly Confucian moral sense. "When the emperor is good, serve," Confucius had advised. "When the emperor is bad, recluse."  But Ling-yun's Taoist sensibilities, more esoteric than philosophical or political,  were not strong enough to erase or transcend his animosity and fatal engagement.

He composed "Eight Poems in the Style of the Prince of Wei" to illustrate the unworthiness of the usurpers and defend the fallen Han. To Ling-yun, the legendary Prince of Wei served as a idealized hero and emperor compared to the decadent present. Prince Wei and other ancient poets speak in the first person, with Ling-yun attaching brief introductory notes.

Ling-yun writes of Wang Ts'an: "He encountered a time of troubles and suffered exile. His sorrows were many." Of Ch'ien Lin he says: "He lived through many periods of war and disorder." Of Hsu-Kan: "In his youth he had no inclination for office, and when he accepted office he often wrote of the simple life." And of Ying Yang: "A homeless exile, wise in worldly ways; he sighed much over his wanderings." Concludes Ling-yun: "I bow to all and worries fall away; within my heart not a trace of care."

These portraits of Ling-yun are clear projections of himself. They sound uninspired and somewhat decadent. While far below the high standards of his nature poems, they are prophetic in capturing his sour political mood.

In 431, Meng-yi, the Grand Warden of the adjacent district of Kuei-chi, accused Ling-yun of plotting rebellion against the new regime. The accusation was old, based on Ling-yun's importune land development schemes of years previous, as already mentioned. At the time, Ling-yun had dismissed Meng-yi as an insignificant complainer, and mocked his piety as a devotee of decorative Buddhist stupas and temples for earning karma. "You may get to Paradise before me," he had told Meng-yi, "but you will achieve Buddhahood after me." Meng-yi was insulted and the land reclamation issue had festered ever since.

Ling-yun had not imagined that one day Meng-yi would have high office and strong patrons in a new and hostile regime. Realizing this now, Ling-yun wrote in letters to friends that he was fearful and "torn with anguish."

The business with Meng-yi was perhaps only incidental. Due to his status and family name, Ling-yun's enemies at court were already preparing serious accusations against him. Emperor Wei-ti, perhaps out of respect for his ancestry, appointed him Inner Officer of Lin Ch'uan, a nominal title in a undesirable, malaria-infested hinterland. But Ling-yun's enemies doggedly pursued him with the charge of rebellion and a sentence of execution.

In a last poem, Ling-yun wrote:

What does a happy life amount to, after all?
I am not troubled by its brevity.
I only regret that my resolution as a gentlemen
could have brought me to my end among the mountains,
To deliver up my heart before I achieved Enlightenment. ...

Ling-yun was executed in 433.


Obscured in the history of both poetry and eremitism, Ling-yun's eclipse can be attributed to the irreconcilability of status and obscurity, the conflict between the desire for repute as a poet and aristocrat with the self-effacement of the true hermit. In part, this conflict overlapped the eremitic versions of Confucian versus Taoist versus Buddhist throughout these centuries in China. But Ling-yun's rich and heart-felt poetry is a monument to the eremitic vision and the reconciliation of nature and humanity. As Frodsham puts it succinctly:

The life and vital order of the universe, the philosophy of organism, of the supreme pattern which reveals itself through ever-changing forms of mountains and streams, clothed itself for the first time subtly yet radiantly in the poetry of Hsieh Ling-yun.


J. D. Frodsham: The Murmuring Stream: Life and Works of Hsieh Ling-yun. Kuala Lampur: University of Malaya Press, 1967; The Mountain Poems of Hsieh Ling-Yun, translated by David Hinton. New York: New Directions, 2001; Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, translated by David Hinton. New edition. New York: New Directions, 2005.