Tao Chien (Tao Yuan-ming), Poet of Reclusion

Tao Yuan-ming (365-427), also known as Tao Chien or Tao Quin, represents both the old and new in an era of China that saw years of war and chaos. Tao Chien is well educated in the classics of Confucianism and Taoism, and later in life he may have befriended a local Buddhist figure long before Buddhism was significant in China. But Tao Chien is chiefly remembered not for his breadth of knowledge but for his unique voice as a poet of transition and reclusion.

Tao's career as a "scholar-gentleman" or government official, clashed with his propensity for solitude, and he became a recluse in the Chinese manner, in a rural area with his family. As a poet he projects warmth, humanity, and personal vulnerability. Unlike most of his contemporaries and predecessors, Tao Chien neither wrote in a lofty manner nor exaggerated the virtues of reclusion. He is at once loyal to friends and family, skeptical philosophically, a realist about daily life and its hardships, but also rueful and wistfully romantic in his struggle to be worthy of the hermits and sages of the past.

Tao's autobiographical summary of several paragraphs, "Biography of the Gentleman of the Five Willows," written in the third person, is a stylized tour-de-force that does not reveal much but is infused with self-abnegating simplicity.

Quiet and of few words, he does not desire glory or profit. He delights in study but does not seek abstruse explanations. Whenever there is something of which he apprehends the meaning, then, in his happiness, he forgets to eat. ...

His house with surrounding walls only a few paces long is lonely and does not shelter him from wind and sun. His short coarse robe is torn and mended. His dishes and gourds are often empty, yet he is at peace. He constantly delights himself with writing in which he widely expresses his own ideals. He is unmindful of gain or loss, and thus he will be to the end.

The details of Tao Chien's life are simple. The family was poor but well-educated. His mother died when he was very young. He began a career in government bureaucracy and eventually quit to return home, refusing many later calls to an alternative post. Tao Chien married, had children, and determined to pursue a life of self-sufficiency as a recluse and farmer.

But after a fire destroyed his ancestral home, poverty dogged him. Farming was exhausting work and he grew thin and sickly. Still Tao refused job offers from old government acquaintances. For a while he gave in and served a military post, then a brief stint as town magistrate. But this did not last long.

Tao Chien's two episodes of withdrawal from service are described in his most celebrated poems, "Return Home" and "Returning to Live in the Country," the latter a series of five poems on reclusion. First, this scene from "Returning Home":

My boat lightly tosses on the broad waters,
The wind, whirling, blows my robe about.
I ask a traveler of the way ahead.
I am impatient with the dawn light's faintness.
Then I espy my humble house:
I am glad, so I run.
The children wait at the gate.

Tao elaborates on reclusion in "Returning to Live in the Country":

In youth I could not do what everyone else did;
It was my nature to love the mountains and hills.
By mistake I got caught in the dusty snare,
I went away and stayed for thirteen years.

He speaks of his house:

My house measures ten mou or more,
a thatch roof covers eight or nine spans.
Around my door and yard no dust or noise.
In my bare rooms, no busyness.
After so long a prisoner in a cage
I have returned to things as they are [i.e., Nature].

But reclusion was not to be without hardship. At first, Tao's poverty was so thorough-going that he served the plow as ox while his wife served as the plow head. He composed a series of "poverty" poems:

Man's life is a matter of possessing the Way,
But food and clothing truly are its beginnings.
How can one make no provision whatsoever for these
And yet seek contentment for oneself? ...
To be a farmer is surely a harsh lot;
One cannot refuse these hardships.
I only wish that I might continue like this;
At plowing with my own hand I have no complaint.

Tao's poverty shapes his thoughts on reclusion and life.

Living in poverty I have little human contact,
And at times forget the cycle of four season.
In my courtyard there are many fallen leaves.
Moved by these I know it is already autumn.
New sunflowers grow thick by the northern window,
Fine ripe grain has been raised in my southern fields.
If I am not happy now,
How do I know there will be another year?
I call my wife and take the children by the hand;
This fair day we will go wandering in the hills.

Unlike previous poets who had written about bucolic scenes and idyllic rural life, Tao had lived it first-hand. Despite hardships, Tao affirms that farming is not merely an avocation but a safeguard to reclusion, and therefore constitutes his life and identity.

This was the insight of maturity, however. In the early years, poverty oppressed Tao, despite his protestations. Perhaps it caused his apparent alcoholism. He used the family's meager grain for brewing, attaching himself to visitor's bringing gifts of wine, or eagerly following up party invitations. As his autobiographical "Five Willows" owns:

By nature he is fond of wine, but his family is poor and he cannot usually get it. His relatives and friends know this, and sometimes set out wine and invite him.

Many personal poems are labeled "Drinking Wine," written in moments of despondency or with a visiting companion with whom to drink. But at least one commentator has viewed Tao's drinking as a pretext for avoiding service and a grand metaphor for reclusion itself, the "drinking" of poverty's bitter dregs that is nevertheless to be preferred to serving the corrupt lords of the present, as this passage suggests:

The Way has been lost nearly a thousand years;
All men are careful of their feelings.
Though they have wine, they will not drink it.

As he grew older, Tao grew more reflective, and more convinced of the virtue of reclusion:

Uneasy was the bird which had lost the flock;
In the evening of the day it still flew alone.
Uncertain, with no fixed resting place ...
Now it has alighted on this solitary pine,
Now it has folded its wings and come home from afar.

Tao Chien could not accept the ritualism of Confucianism. Nor could he accept the teachings of esoteric Taoism concerning karma and immortality. A number of poems express the vanity of pursuing life-prolonging practices when one sees the inevitability of death everywhere. Hence Tao Chien works out a philosophy of life that is intensely personal, mingling images of nature, experience, solitude, and personality. This, in short, is his unique voice in Chinese poetry and thought.

And Tao's philosophy of life is epitomized by his house or hut as a central metaphor for self and universe.

I built my hut within where others live,
But there is no noise of carriages and horses.
You ask how this is possible:
When the heart is distant, solitude comes.
I pluck chrysanthemums by the eastern fence
And see the distant southern mountains.
The mountain air is fresh at dusk.
Flying birds return in flocks.
In these things there lies a great truth,
But when I try to express it, I cannot find the words.

The deep and moving experience of nature and solitude conveys to Tao an unspeakable reality. As the Tao te ching says, however, "The Tao that can be named is not the Tao," and Tao Chien comes to understand this. The insight he experiences cannot be expressed.

Tao Chien has a profound affinity for the recluses and sages of the past:

Far off, I gaze at the white clouds,
I think deeply of the ancients ...
I think of you, recluses:
A thousand years after, I cherish your principles.
Searching their essence, I cannot exhaust it. ...
That the ancients cannot be with me
only I can know how sorely I regret it.

In a famous poem, Tao muses on how he shall pass the evening -- plowing and chores finished -- browsing through the pictures in the Classic of the Hills and Seas -- a collection of stories about Chinese kings and sages. One day not far distant Tao will join those sages. He reflects:

The days and months are not able to linger;
The four seasons press upon one another.
A cold wind shakes the withered branches;
Fallen leaves cover the long road.
My feeble constitution declines with the passing of time.
The black hair on my temples is early winter:
The white sign is now set upon my head.
The road before me gradually narrows.
My hut is an inn for a traveler,
And I am like a guest that must depart.
Away, away, to where am I going?
On the southern mountains is my old home.



Translations based on miscellaneous sources, including Arthur Waley, Burton Watson, William Acker (my favorite), and A. R. Davis. On the latter two: William Acker: Tao the Hermit: Sixty Poems of Tao Chien (365-427), translated, introduced, and annotated. London; New York: Thames and Hudson, 1952. A. R. Davis: Tao Yuan-ming, A.D. 365-427, His Works and Their Meaning. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. 2 vols.  David Hinton's translations (The Selected Poems of Tao Chien. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1993) is very interpretative; it is the only currently available translation.