Calling-Bird Brook

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Wang River by Wang Wei's country retreat

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Calling-Bird Brook
Wang Wei 699-759
Man quiet; sweet osmanthus falls
Night tranquil; the spring mountain empties
The rising moon startles mountain birds
Which call awile in the spring stream
Niǎomíng Jiàn
Wáng Wéi 699-759

Rén xián guìhuā luò,
Yèjìng chūnshān kōng.
Yuèchū jīng shān niǎo,
Shí míng chūn jiàn zhōng.
Translator: Ron Egan 艾朗諾

Both the emptiness of the mountain in spring and the moon light so powerful that it startles birds in the springs stream can be readily interpreted as Buddhist metaphores. Let us look closely at only the first couplet, as it introduces an aspect of Buddhist thought and practice not yet mentioned.

The couplet is strictly parallel and made up of anly content words (shizi). Thus the relationship between the images are suggested by juxtaposition and not gramatically marked. Although we could read each of the two lines as simply additive, I prefer to read each as a cause-effect proposition (because the man is quiet, therefore the sweet osmanthus falls; because the night is tranquil, therefore the spring mountain is empty).

Such an intrepretation is in keeping with the ideas about meditation practice contemporary to Wang Wei. The major influence on Early and Middle Tang Buddhism in this regard came from the Tiantai school, whose founde, Zhiyi 538-597, had reformulated and systematized the earlier Hinayana meditation techniques and set them firmly to a Mahayana context. Practice revolved around the dynamic relationship between zhi (samantha, {cessation, calming}) and guan (vipasyana, {insight ,and contemplation}). The two go together. In Zhiyi's words, "samantha (or zhi) is the hand that holds the clump of grass, vipasyana (or guan) the sickle that cuts it down."

In Wang Wei's poem, "man quiet" and "night tranquil" are the zhi, and "osmanthus falls' and "spring mountain empties" are guan. Cessation of mental activity allows the poet to experience true reality. When the realization of emptiness is attained, out comes the bright moon of enlightenment.

The above analysis by Ron Egan on page 207 of How to Read Chinese Poetry, A Guided Anthology, edited by Zong-Qi Cai, published by Columbia University Press 2007.

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