Hinton-MountainHomeMountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, selected and translated by David Hinton. New York: Counterpoint, 2002.

David Hinton is not simply an established translator of ancient Chinese poetry and classical Chinese texts in a long tradition from Legge and Waley to Seaton, Watson, and Porter. Hinton actively interprets the culture and intellectual values of his subject and contributes not merely notes to representative poets but delivers a comprehensive philosophical perspective on what animated the poets and the culture.

The fact that all of the ancient Chinese poets are recluses and hermits - whether having been exiled, having abandoned government service, or having formally retired from government service for a life of recusion - is sufficient reason for diligently pursuing this book. The eremetic tradition in China is intimately related to poetry as creative as well as philosophical expression, but Hinton brings the logic of both of these elements together for the discernment of either interest.

The invaluable context Hinton offers enhances the reader’s experience by understanding the context of the poetry beyond linguistic, literary, aesthetic, or biographical considerations. While Hinton has published translations of every major Chinese text of ancient China — from the I Ching and Confucius to Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu — Mountain Home remains a favorite compilation of representative poets and their philosophies.

The poems selected for his book range from Tao Chien in the 5th century to Fan Cheng in the 12th, centering on the Tang and Sung dynasties and the rivers-and-mountains or shan-shui poetic traditions in China, the "earliest animist extensive literary engagement with wilderness in human history." But this poetry does not merely incorporate nature or landscape in the Western sense of the false dichotomy between human observer and nature, or that merely ascetic backdrop represented as landscape seen at a distance. Hinton asserts that "the Chinese wilderness is nothing less than a dynamic cosmology in which humans participate in the most fundamental way" as embedded being, not separate spectator.

The Chinese cosmology is the Way or Tao of the philosophical Taoism of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, wherein human beings are integrated into a generative and transformative process. The process is most compellingly presented in seasonal cycles characteristically part of the poetry as expression of the larger ontological process. Hinton explains that the mechanism of the generative process, of nonbeing generating from a void into a Way, is tzu-jan, which he translates as "occurrence appearing of itself," the self-generative process of non-being into being and being returning to the process of transformation.

Hinton notes how tzu-jan is usually deprecated by Westerners viewing reclusion — the Chinese tradition of intellectuals serving the emperor and palace leaving the world for distant reclusion in rural and wilderness settings — as an escapism or embrace of freedom and nature, the poetry representing pastoral or romantic sentiments. The cosmological implications of the poetic tradition, however, is to see human beings in an organic setting within an organic process, a dwelling place embedding not simply observation but expressing what Hinton calls a "spiritual ecology," which has important resonance far beyond one culture. Hinton dissects the language and structure of Chinese ideograms to fully reveal the deep sense of expression underlying all the rivers-and-mountains poems. Poems come to express cosmology, cosmology breathes through the detail of language.

Hinton attributes the origins of wilderness poetry in the early 5th century CE to the departure of the Chinese government from north to south, and the recluses’ separation from the persistent corruption of that government, but also to renewal of Taoist thought and to the introduction (and rise) of Chan (Zen) Buddhism to China, at the outset of the Tang Dynasty. The confluence of poetry, painting, and calligraphy mark the new confidence of the intellectuals of the era, with Tao Chien as the model poet of the rivers-and-mountains poetic values, espoused by recluses.

Properly speaking, Tao Chien inaugurated the fields-and-garden tradition, while Hsieh Ling-Yun inaugurated rivers-and-mountains poetry by actively referencing key concepts of li (inner pattern), shang (aesthetics of wholeness), hsin (identity of mind and heart), and comprehending of mountain landscapes as reflecting emptiness or non-being.

The Tang Dynasty section of the book represents the most familiar poets of not only the rivers-and-mountains tradition but of ancient China: Meng Hao-jan, Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Wei Ying-Wu, Han Shan, Meng Chiao, Liu Tsung-Yuan, Po Chu-i, Chia Tao, and Tu Mu. What distinguished the Tang Dynasty from the previous era of several centuries was the rise, maturation, and embrace of Chan Buddhism. As Hinton clearly puts it:

Ch’an not only clarified anew the spiritual ecology of early Taoist thought, it also emphasized the old Taoist idea that deep understanding lies beyond words. In poetry, this gave rise to a much more distilled language, especially in its concise imagism (empty mind mirroring tzu-jan), which opened new inner depths, nonverbal insights, and even outright enigma. This enigma and imagistic concision opens the poem to silence; and as with meditation, this silence is itself wilderness, the nonverbal and non-human. So this new poetics weaves consciousness into wilderness, making this weave the very texture of poetic experience.

The process begins with Meng Hao-jan (689-740) and the element of enigma. Wang Wei (701-761), arguably "China's most immediately appealing poet," brings to poetry his interest in painting, deepening the techniques of self-effacement to emphasize enigma's transition into the silence of wilderness. Tu Fu (712-770) is China's representative recluse, exiled from nature by government service but keenly conscious of human drama in a larger transformative context. Tu Fu corresponds his actual exile and wanderings with that of the human condition, and reaches a deep commingling of world-weariness with a wilderness consciousness. Wei Ying-Wu (737-792) reflects the reclusiveness of Wang Wei and the sensitivity of Tu Fu. His later poems were written during reclusion and more closely reflect the rivers-and-mountains themes. Hinton writes of Wei Ying-Wu:

However secluded the world of these poems may be, they reflect his continued involvement with social issues. Wei lived in the ruins of what was perhaps China's greatest moment of cultural splendor, and his poems are often suffused with an ineffable sense of absence.

With the mid-Tang poetic style shifts. Han Shan (7th-9th centuries) (the name of the poet means Cold Mountain, where he lived in southeast China) was a wilderness hermit akin to a Chuang-tzu Taoist figure, haunting monasteries where he leaves wall-written poems or forests and mountains where his poems are scrawled onto rocks and trees. His radical themes of self-examination fit the Taoist mode well, and complements the range of wilderness poets. Meng Chiao (751-814), also a deliberate hermit, crafts poetic scenes of symbolic and quasi-surreal quality "extending the dark extremities of Tu Fu’s late work into a radically new poetry of black introspection."

Liu Tsung-yuan (773-819) spent his younger years as a Confucian political activist, but when he was exiled to southern China in his thirties he turned to spiritual interests, spending time in nature and in Chan studies in monasteries, his poetry and some essays reflecting his new insights. Hinton describes Po Chu-i (772-846) as a "quintessential Chinese poet" in his careful pursuit of a poetry reflecting observed spiritual values. He initiated a major strand in Chinese poetic thinking: an "interiorization of wilderness" that came to be the most distinctive trait of Sung Dynasty poetry. Chia Tao (779-843) spent many years as a contemplative monk, then moved to the capital of Chang-an as an impoverished experimental poet depicting ideal rivers and mountains. Tu Mu (803-853) was a career government official whose travels acquainted him with nature. His rivers-and-mountains poems are informed by Chan practice, and are clear and concise. Tu Mu "opens the fundamental human enigmas of consciousness and perception, revealing their organic relationship to the rivers-and-mountains realm."

Lu Yu (1125-1210) also spent a career in government service to retire to become an impoverished recluse on a farm in his ancestral village. For two decades he wrote poetry ceaselessly, typically Sung in enacting insight not merely portraying it. Lu projects a simple contentment like Taoist enlightenment, a transparent sequence of images of everyday rightness. Fan Cheng-ta (1126-1193) steps beyond his contemporaries to concentrate a poetry that focuses on the quotidian, not infusing thought or experience within it but allowing intimate images of the seasonal cycle to reflect his no-mind Chan transparency and wilderness naturalness. Notes Hinton:

In structuring his sequences of poems according to the seasonal cycle, Fan emphasizes wilderness as the context of daily life, for the wilderness cosmology of being and non-being is nowhere so clearly manifest as in the seasonal cycle. … And as the poem attends equally to both the human and nonhuman, it weaves them together in the fabric of that wilderness cosmology.

Finally, Yang Wan-li (1127-1206) represents "a culmination of Ch’an poetics in rivers-and-mountains poetry" and is counted the last Sung Dynasty poet. Yang was a careful student of Chan, culminating in enlightenment, making his poetry reflective of immediacy, attentiveness, and clear no-mind. Nothing mundane escapes his notice, for all is part of the greater wilderness.


In addition to representative poems for each of the named poets above, the book includes useful bibliographic notes and lists, plus a helpful "Key Terms: An Outline of Wilderness Thought in Ancient China." This book is not simply an anthology of ancient Chinese poets but a collection of thematic import and philosophical explication. The poems are carefully selected and clearly translated with a fundamental empathy and identification. Here is a philosophical key to ancient Chinese culture that illuminates a tradition of thought that is overlooked or underappreciated by other translators and editors. And with all its other merits, Mountain Home is essential for understanding the eremetic tradition of China.