Recluses and reclusion in the Poems of the Masters

The Chien chia shih or Poems of the Masters was compiled by Liu K'o-chang in the 12th century and rearranged in the 17th century by Wang Hsiang. English-language translator Red Pine (i.e., Bill Porter) notes that the work "includes the most quoted poems in the Chinese language by the most famous poets of China's Golden Age of Poetry," namely the Tang and Sung dynasties. The anthology includes many themes and topics from nature and seasons to relationships, but of particular interest are the poems of eleven recluses from among the 200-plus poems.

The recluse poets are: Li Po, Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Tsen Shen, Han Yu, Liu Yu-shi, Chen Tuan, Chen Tsu, Cheng Hao, Chu Hsi, and Wang Chi. In deference to copyright, the translated passages slightly differ from the Red Pine compilation but capture the gist of the poems. Quoted biographical description is by Red Pine.

1. Li Po, or, Li Pai (701-762).
Li Po was a minor court figure who fell into disfavor and "spent most of his life wandering along the Yangtze, a guest of those who appreciated his talent and unrestrained spirit." A favorite haunt, named in his poem "Sitting Alone on Chingling Mountain," captures the contrast between birds (officials), clouds (hermits) and himself:

Flocks of birds disappear far away,
Solitary clouds scatter.
Only Chingling Mountain
does not weary of my presence.

2. Wang Wei (701-761).
Wang Wei was a minor official whose Buddhist inspiration circumscribed his ambition, though he was advanced in rank. Wang Wei built a hermitage he called Bamboo Retreat in a Changnan or Zhongnan mountain valley. One poem in the anthology is titled "Bamboo Retreat":

Deep in the forest of bamboo,
Playing my lute and whistling a tune.
Nobody knows I am here
except the bright moon looking down on me.

Another poem of Wang Wei celebrates the simple meal he assembles from his own gardens: greens, millet, mallow leaves, hibiscus flowers for tea. The poet is pleased that he no longer contests with anyone over seats of power, though seagulls, like officials, still find him suspicious.

3. Tu Fu (712-770).
Tu Fu is considered ancient China's greatest poet, here represented with 26 poems. All of Tu Fu's poems are imbued with solitude, though he persisted in official life despite his better sense, early on revealing his constant drinking and detachment from court and ritual.

I have tried everyone else's path
To where can I flee this dust?

In another poem, he writes: "What's the point of fame if it just holds you down?"

At last Tu Fu lost his patron and at 46 offered officialdom his excuse for reclusion:

I've resigned my post due to sickness
Now I drift alone like a solitary gull.

For a long time he could not reunite with his family due to widespread war; reunited, they could not return home for many years.

4. Ts'en Shen (8th century).
Tsen Shen was a career official but in a journey through the Changnan Mountains, overlooking the smoke from fires set by rebellious An Lu Shan armies in the wealthier districts northwest of the capital, he was struck by a sense of transience, wondering if he should not have long ago become a monk. The poem is titled "On Climbing Tseng-chih Pagoda," referring to the promontory from which he looked out reflectively:

... if I had before felt this sense of detachment
I would have instead served the Buddha.

5. Han Yu (768-824).
Han Yu reflects the syncretism of Chinese tradition. An ardent neo-Confucian, Han Yu was banished to the southeastern coast for criticizing the emperor. On his way to his place of exile, Han Yu was visited by his nephew Han Hsian in the Changnan Mountains. The nephew was so impressed by the mountains that he was to return there to live in a cave the rest of his life, and became one of the Taoist Eight Immortals. Han Yu's poem reflects the moment of their mountain visit in "For My Nephew Hsian on My Demotion and Arrival at Lankuan Pass":

At daybreak I gave the court an opinion,
By nightfall I was heading for Chaiyang 2,000 miles away.
I thought to address evils in the court,
deluded, to give myself a few more years of service.
Thick clouds of Chingling separate me from my home.
Heavy snows at Lankuan Pass block the way ahead.
Dear nephew, you've come this far:
Is it to gather my bones from some pestilent river?

6. Liu Yu-hsi (772-842).
Liu Yu-hsi offended the court in his writings and was banished. In "Ode to the Autumn Wind" he reflects on his fortune, traveling alone to the south in exile:

Autumn wind dispatches geese southwards.
It penetrates the courtyard inn at morning
where the lone traveler is awakened.

7. Ch'en Tuan (817-989).
In youth, Chien Tuan once built a hut at the foot of the Hua-shan Mountains. Then journeyed to the capital, seeking to serve as an official. But, notes Red Pine, "he was so disappointed by the chaos of the times that he returned to the hermitage he had built earlier." Chen Tuan spent the rest of his life as a hermit, studying and practicing Taoism, known for his months-long meditative states. Though a Taoist, his famous Diagram of the Limitless greatly influenced contemporary neo-Confucianism. In "Returning to My Retreat," Chen Tuan summarizes his life and thought.

I shuffled through red dust for a decade,
but often dreamed of verdant mountains.
The purple cord of court seals doesn't rival peaceful sleep.
Grand gates of red don't compare to having less.
Swordsmen protecting a sickly lord,
the song of raucous drunkards: how disgusting.
I'm toting my old books back to my hermitage,
back to flowers and birdsong and familiar spring.

8. Ch'en Hsu (10th century).
Chien Hsu was banished to Kangsi to serve as prefect, and his long journey to exile passed the Kuang lu chan or Kuang Mountain, originally named after the famous first century BCE hermit Kuang Heng, explains Red Pine. The name later became Kuang Lu Chan or Kuang's Hut Mountain, then shortened to Luchan or Hut Mountain. In one of Chen Hsu's "Traveling on the Yangtze" poems, he looks out from his boat at the mountainside mists and rues that he cannot stop and climb the mountainside:

In those caves hidden by mists
perhaps ancient hermit monks still dwell.

9. Ch'eng Hao (11th century).
Cheng Hao taught neo-Confucianism in Loyang but was banished for his political opinions and never returned to his home. His "Occasional Poem on an Autumn Day" expresses his philosophy of life:

Release everything in a state of peace.
Awaken before dawn beside the eastern Window.
Everything is just right when considered without passions.
Glorious autumn!
The formed and the formless are filled with the Tao.
Thoughts are of wind and clouds, in the always-changing.
Not to crave wealth, to be content with poverty:
Who attains this state is truly wise.

10. Chu Hsi (1113-1200).
Chu Hsi was a ranking governor when he wrote "Autumn Moon":

A clear brook flows past a verdant mountain peak,
Autumn reveals itself in water and sky.
So far away from the red dust of the world:
limitless vista of clouds and autumn leaves.

11. Wang Ch'i (12th century).
Wang Chi writes of the plum blossom, evoking the poet Lin Pu (or Lin Ho-ching), who was a hermit in a "provincial backwater." It was said that Lin Pu never married, instead having espoused the plum blossom and to have made of the cranes he taught to dance his children. Wang Chi criticizes the poet-successors of Lin Pu who celebrate the plum blossom but fail to understand the spirit of poverty and simplicity represented by the flower. Wang Chi's poem is "The Plum":

Secure from the world's polluting dust,
content to dwell in a thatched hut next to a bamboo fence.
But along came Lin Pu with his poems,
and poets haven't stopped chattering ever since.


Poems of the Masters: China's Classic Anthology of T'ang and Sung Dynasty Verse, translated by Red Pine. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2003.