Let us recall the poem mentioned earlier:
"When I was young, I was strong and brave.
I carried my sword and traveled alone.
Who says that I have only been to nearby places?
I have traveled from Zhangyi to Youzhou."
This poem clearly illustrates the symbolism that Tao Yuan-ming frequently used. His traveling from Zhangyi to Youzhou was not in a physical sense. He visited those places in spirit. He was describing a state of mind.
Was Tao Yuanming daydreaming? No. Many of Tao Yuanming's poems carry the heroic spirit of the line, "I carried my sword and traveled alone." He wrote a poem praising Jing Ke, a warrior and assassin in the Epoch of Warring States. The King of Qin was always looking to invade other states. Worried that they might be invaded by Qin, Prince Dan of the State of Yan found Jing Ke and asked him to assassinate the ambitious King of Qin. That is the brief story of Jing Ke.
In Tao Yuanming's poem, "Praise to Jing Ke," he admired Jing Ke's chivalry and heroic deeds. From this, we can see the magnanimous spirit and heroic passion in Tao Yuanming's heart. Tao Yuanming was not by nature a mild and peace-loving man, especially in those tumultous times of war and strife. The Western Jin Dynasty was chaotic, and the Eastern Jin Dynasty was even worse. Not only was the northern part occupied by foreigners, the southern part was also filled with fighting.
It started with Su Jun's revolt. Tao Yuanming's great-grand father joined the battle to subdue the revolt by Su Jun. Then there was a revolt led by Huan Xuan, and then another one by Liu Yu. In addition, along the southeast coast, there was the revolt led by Sun En. Tao Yuanming not only lived through those battles, he witnessed those people cruelly killing many rivals by any means they could.
The last two emperors of the Eastern Jin Dynasty were poisoned to death. The last emperor of the Eastern Jin Dynasty was Emperor An. When Liu Yu of the Liu-Song Dynasty decided to make himself emperor, he sent a man to give Emperor An a cup of poisoned wine. The man who was to deliver the wine felt guilty: "How can I poison a man, especially if he happens to be the emperor?" However, if he did not make sure the emperor drank the poisoned wine, he knew he would not live. Faced with such a dilemma, he drank the wine himself. He committed suicide because he did not want to do something he felt he should not do. Even so, Liu Yu was very stubborn and sent another man to poison Emperor An. But the emperor refused to drink that poisoned wine. Liu Yu tried a different tactic and eventually killed the emperor. Such were the times and society in which Tao Yuanming lived.
What is incredible is that Tao Yuanming worked under both usurpers, Huan Xuan and Liu Yu, the assassin of Emperor An. That explains why Tao Yuanming resigned his post and did not want to work for the government anymore. Later on, many people offered him an official position, but he turned them all down. Tao Yuanming wrote a poem, "On Drinking," which talks about the decline of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. He also wrote a series of poems called "On Reading
The Book of the Mountains and Seas."
The Book of the Mountains and Seas is an ancient Chinese book which combines Chinese geography with traditional mythology. It relates many myths and fairytales. Tao Yuanming used those myths and fairytales as vehicles to express his own lamentation over the society and times. One of these poems praises Xingtian. It says, "Xingtian brandishes his arms. His brave spirit has always existed." It describes Xingtian, a hero who may be man or beast, who kept on fighting with his enemies even after his head was chopped off.
Tao Yuanming also wrote about many weird and strange events. Most of the characters in his poems are wronged or defeated heroes. He wrote such poems because of the anger and frustration he felt after what he had gone through. Again, let us return to the poem: "When I was young, I was strong and brave. I carried my sword and traveled alone. Who says that I have only been to nearby places? I have traveled from Zhangyi to Youzhou." This poem particularly expresses the indignance and heroic spirit deep in his heart.
I have referred to the verses written by Yuan Yishan in Jin Dynasty in praise of Tao Yuanming. Now I want to mention what Gong Zizhen of the Qing Dynasty said. Gong Zizhen wrote: 'Tao Qian liked to talk about Jing Ke in his poems. Refer to his songs in 'Unmoving Clouds.'" He also wrote two lines: "Don't believe that poets are content with the simple life. They are two parts fame and one part rhythm." These are lines from "Reading Tao Yuanming's Three Poems on a Boat" written by Gong Zizhen.
The meaning of these lines is: Didn't Tao Yuanming praise Jing Ke in his poems? We know that Jing Ke was listed in
"Biographical Sketches of Assassins" in The Historical Records written by Sima Qian. So we should not think of Tao Yuanming only as someone who retired to the country and took up farming. His poems often reveal a heroic spirit of indignance at the injustice of the times. "Refer to his loud songs in 'Unmoving Clouds.'" Gong Zizhen said that we can refer to his poems entitled "Unmoving Clouds."
To be continued