I mentioned that Tao liked to use images of pine trees and chrysanthemums in his poems. Tao Yuanming wrote such lines as:
Gorgeous, fragrant chrysanthemums blossom in the woods; / Rows of verdant pine crown the mountains. / Chaste and lovely, they are heroes in the icy weather. (The second of "Two Poems in Response to Chief Kuo"). Tao was saying: "The fragrant mums in the woods are blooming resplendently. The rows of green pine trees crowning the high mountains make it look as if the mountains are wearing hats." 'Chaste' means resolutely pure, and 'lovely" means beautiful. Other plants turn yellow as soon as the autumn wind blows, but the pine is evergreen. Other flowers wither and drop in the autumn breeze, but chrysanthemums continue to blossom. These images symbolize resolute, unchanging chasteness.
Both pine and chrysanthemum are characterized by their resolute character and elegant beauty, thus becoming "heroes in the icy weather." They stand out from ordinary plants. Pine and chrysanthemum do not bend or wither in the icy wind; hence they are heroes of the icy weather. Now, this bird yearns to find a pure and lofty roost and see what a fine thing she comes across! She finds a pine tree that is chaste and lovely, a hero in the icy weather.
The pine tree in this poem differs from the 'rows of verdant pine' that 'crown the mountains' in that it is solitary. It stays green and vibrant, not because it has many companions, but because it can stand alone without falling and withering. When the bird finally discovers this solitary, elegant, and tough pine tree,
"she gathers her wings and comes to land."
This is a vivid and poignant scene. Literally, she gathers in those strongest, biggest wing feathers. This is the bird whose "cries grow sadder each night." Seeing the all-pervasive filth and corruption down there, she refuses to land. She flies for a long time without pulling in her wings, looking for a pure and lofty place to make her roost. Now, when she spots that pine tree from afar, she says, "That's the place I'm looking for." She collects her wings and descends directly towards her target. This scene is described with vivid reality.
In the following line, Tao says: "No other tree can withstand the harsh wind, yet this one alone stands tough." "Tough" indicates a plant with abundant leaves. Tao says: "In the harsh and freezing wind, every tree's leaves turn yellow and fall off. The pine alone retains its luxuriant green foliage." You know, a good bird won't casually roost on just any tree. In "Autumn Waters," Zhuang Zi wrote about the
yuanchu (a bird resembling the legendary phoenix) that would not eat any fruit except that of the bamboo; would not drink any water except the sweetest spring water; and would not roost on any tree except the
An owl found a rotten mouse corpse and was eating it. A
yuanchu happened to flyover. The owl lifted its head and called out, worrying that the
yuanchu would grab the dead mouse. It really underestimated the
yuanchu's standards! Now, Tao Yuanming's bird is the same way. Such a bird would not arbitrarily land in any filthy place. She found a roost only after seeing that lonesome pine tree.
"Hating found a secure perch, she won't desert it for a thousand years." Tao said, "Since I have found a place that suits me, I've decided to settle down. No matter what happens, I won't move." The Chinese have a phrase, "thousands of years and tens of thousands of years." Both 'thousands' and 'tens of thousands' are for emphasis. Tao Yuanming is referring here to the traditional Confucian teaching: "Choose the right way and persist in it.' That is to say: "You should seriously choose an ideal for your life, then stick to it and never change it."
Mencius said that "one must not be corrupted by wealth and honor, be swayed by poverty and low position; or yield to force." (Tengwengong Chapter of
Mencius). Confucius said that one should never renounce humaneness under any circumstances. "You must adhere to it, no matter what happens; you must adhere to it, no matter how difficult it is." (Liren Chapter of
Analects) "No matter what happens" means even when accidents happen; "no matter how difficult means even in times of deprivation and hardship. When a person truly recognizes the meaning and value of the 'Tao' in one's life, one will uphold it and never compromise it.
The fourth poem of On Drinking represents finding firm ground to stand upon and a basic place to settle, after experiencing the ephemerality of prosperity and decline, the uncertainty of fortunes and misfortunes, and the doubts, confusion and anxieties of life described in the previous three poems. All right, we will stop at here today.