Tao started by saying: It is said that accumulated good brings a reward—people who do many good deeds should enjoy favorable rewards; yet there were Yi and Shu in the western mountains. Why did Boyi and Shuqi starve to death in the western mountains? Ancient Chinese poets generally did not punctuate the lines. If we add punctuation in the modern style, should we add a question mark or an exclamation point at the end of the line: "Yet there were Yi and Shu in the western mountains "? This line, as I said before, imitates Sima Qian's style, being a combination of question, lamentation, and narrative. If good deeds are rewarded, why did such good men as Boyi and Shuqi end up starving to death in the western mountains? This is a turning point.
The next line says: If good and evil are of no consequence—if there is no such thing as retribution for good and evil deeds, then why bother to utter hollow maxims? Why then, do we say these false maxims to make people do more good deeds? There's another twist here. The sentiment of this poem, following the rhythm of its narrative, goes up and down, then turns around, expressing the poet's heartfelt lamentation.
At ninety, Rong used a rope as his belt /And lived in hunger and cold as if he were still young. In these two lines, Tao conveys not only his own questions and lamentations, but also a very profound and meaningful image. I mentioned that poems often describe scenes of Nature. An example would be these lines in the fifth poem: How fine the sunset reflected in the mountain mist! /Birds are flying home in groups.
At ninety, Rong used a rope as his belt /And lived in hunger and cold as if he were still young.These lines describe human rather than natural phenomena. Such images may come from the poet's personal experience of people and events in his immediate surroundings, or they could allude to historical figures and events. At ninety, Rong used a rope as his belt. This reference to Rong Qiqi, a historical figure contemporary to Confucius, carries its own story with it.
Chinese poetry uses tangible images to allude to people or incidents, but those images usually convey a long, complicated, and detailed story. For example, consider the lines, "At ninety, Rong used a rope as his belt /And lived in hunger and cold as if he were still young."
They don't merely refer to an old man in his nineties who was so poor that he tied a hemp rope around his robes because he couldn't afford a proper belt. Based on ancient Chinese customs, if he was that poor in his old age, he must have been even more of a pauper in his youth.
Of course, this may sound implausible in western society, where only old folks suffer poverty, not young people. However, Chinese society is different. Chinese children are obligated to take care of and support their parents in their old age. Thus, if Rong Qiqi was that poor in his old age, he must have been even poorer as a youth.
However, the point of this allusion is not that Rong Qiqi was a poor elder. No, not at all! Tao wanted to convey that although the elder Rong Qiqi was very materially poor, he was very happy. At the same time, this allusion also presents the idea that if you can uphold the 'Tao' in your mind, you will naturally have no anxiety or worry. You have no cause to feel shame before heaven or anyone.
"I have not wronged heaven or any person," he said. "What could worry or scare me?" This is the true meaning of the allusion of Rong Qiqi. Therefore, Tao Yuanming later says: Were it not for those individuals who chose poverty so as to preserve their integrity / What in history would be worth passing down to future generations? In my last class, I mentioned that The Confucian Analects and The Book of Mencius discuss how virtuous people are content in poverty.
Tao Yuanming gave up his government post and his material comfort to suffer poverty and hunger, returning home to farm the land. What was his motivation? He sought only inner peace. Thus he said: Were it not for those individuals who chose poverty so as to preserve their integrity / What in history would be worth passing down to future generations? Even in poverty, such individuals held to their principles without wavering. Here, Tao Yuanming expresses his own reflections about life, his concerns and life experiences. Let's read the third poem in the series "On Drinking":
The Tao has disappeared for a thousand years.
Everyone indulges his own desires.
They have wine, yet do not drink,
Caring only about their worldly reputation.
We cherish the body dearly,
Because we possess it for a lifetime.
But how long can a lifetime last?
It passes as swiftly as a lightning flash.
Being lax for a hundred years,
What can we achieve in this way?
To be continued