One of Tao’s poems, “On My Return to Jiangling After Leave,” was composed during the time when Huan Xuan was at Jiangling. However, he too had never been a Defense Commissioner. Then who had actually occupied this post? It was Liu Yu, the one who dethroned Huan Xuan. Subsequently, the person who seized power and assassinated the two Eastern Jin emperors was also Liu Yu. Many critics of Tao’s poetry avoided mentioning these incidents because they felt that it was impossible for a person of Tao Yuan-ming’s character to have worked for a traitor and perpetrator of regicide like Liu Yu. This was most probably a fact. It was just that when Tao Yuan-ming was working as a defense strategist for Liu Yu, the latter was still a general in the service of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. The usurpation was a later event.
From these incidents, we can understand why Tao Yuan-ming preferred to lead a life of hardship rather than to serve as an official. It was because the realities of treachery and betrayal bewildered, disappointed and anguished him. Regardless of whether it was Huan Xuan or Liu Yu, their untrustworthiness and treacherous acts shattered his ideals time and again and caused him much anguish. It is only when we understand the historical background of that period that we can comprehend why Tao Yuan-ming so adamantly wanted to live in seclusion. Therefore, the ninth and tenth poems are very important.
Let’s look at these lines: “In the past, I went on a long journey that took me right up to the eastern seaboard. The path was long and winding, and the trip was fraught with dangers.” The road he took to the eastern sea was long and winding. Just now, I mentioned that factual and symbolic elements were frequently combined in Tao’s poems. On the one hand, these few lines are factual because the journey he took to the eastern sea was indeed very far. On the other hand, they also symbolize the tortuous path he took to become an official. In the poem “Returning to Country and Farming,” he lamented, “Accidentally, I was ensnared in the political net, which took me away from home for thirty years.” Someone researched this and found that it was thirteen years and not thirty years. Regardless of whether it was thirty years or thirteen years, and whether he joined the armies of Liu Lao-zhi, Huan Xuan or Liu Yu, he encountered acts of treachery and deceit wherever he went. Similarly, the phrase ‘feng bo’ that is translated “fraught with dangers” and literally means ‘wind and waves,’ is factual as well as symbolic. When you take a boat trip, there is bound to be wind and waves on the lake or sea--this is a fact. However, ‘feng bo’ does not only refer to the wind and waves in nature. In the preface of Tao Yuan-ming’s essay, “To Return,” he said, “Since peace had not yet returned to the region, I dreaded the idea of going away far from home.” In that context, ‘feng bo’ refers to worldly turmoil.
Having read the history of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, you will know that during Sun En’s armed revolt, many people were killed, particularly members of the nobility. Then again, when Liu Lao-zhi was putting down Sun En’s uprising, many civilians perished as well. According to historical records, the cities then were left virtually deserted. The well-known and talented lady, Xie Dao-yun, was already advanced in age at that time. When the rebels arrived at her doorstep, she marched out with a chopper and scolded them in an attempt to protect her young kinsfolk. Fortunately, the rebels were so held in awe by her bravery and stern, righteous stance, that they spared her family. This incident was recorded in history.
You should realize that poets of different personalities, who live under similar circumstances during periods of war and strife, churn out works that are vastly different. For example, the Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu, who witnessed the tumultuous An-Shi rebellion, composed these lines: “At night, we passed a battlefield, where the frosty moonlight revealed white bones,” [The Road North] and “In early winter, youths in their prime from ten prefectures, shed their blood into the swamps of Chentao.” [Lament on the Battle of Chentao] He painted a vivid picture of the gory and tragic scenes of the battlefields because he was an extrovert. On the contrary, Tao Yuanming was an introvert and that was why his poems did not contain direct references to any of the cruelties and tragedies. He buried in his bosom all the tragic scenes that he encountered. He would ponder over everything deeply and as a result, he produced very complex and profound poems that portrayed his insights regarding human philosophy. Tao Yuanming had served Liu Laozhi, Huan Xuan and Liu Yu, and yet these three people were out to fight and kill each other. As the political situation then was very dangerous, he wrote, “And the trip was fraught with dangers.” Liu Yu himself was actually a very capable general for he had led armies on expeditions to the north when he was still in the service of the Eastern Jin court. Later on, when his political ambitions surfaced, Tao Yuanming must have felt very disillusioned.
Amongst the poets and lyricists, there were some who were not in the least bit introspective. One example was Li Houzhu (the last ruler of the Kingdom of Southern Tang). He had no reservations where emotions were concerned for he would not hesitate to pour forth his feelings. On the other hand, Tao Yuanming was more of a thinker and would approach any matter in an introspective way. With regard to this long journey, he reflected, “Who provoked me to embark on this journey? It seemed that I was driven by hunger.” The question on ‘who’ was very apt. Who compelled him to take the wrong path? This was another question. The reply was also wonderful for he said that he seemed to be forced by hunger. He skillfully used the phrase “seemed to be.” In Tao Yuanming’s biography, it was recorded that he became an official because of ‘an aged parent and family poverty’ [The Book of Jin History – Biographies of Hermits]. This means that he did so in order to avoid hunger. However, the tone of this line, “It seemed that I was driven by hunger” indicates that besides hunger, there were other reasons. What were these reasons? They were revealed only in his other poems.
In Tao’s poem, “Trees in Bloom,” there are these lines: “The luxuriant trees are in full bloom; their roots are entrenched here. The colorful blossoms are so radiant in the morning, but wither away by nightfall. Life is just transitory. Soon, it succumbs to decay. Silently reflecting thus, my heart is filled with remorse.”and “The exhortations of the Master, I will always heed. If one does not make his mark by forty, he is not worthy of respect.”
Confucius once said, “If a person has not achieved anything by the age of forty or fifty, he is not worthy of respect.” [The Analects – Zi Han] The Confucian concept is that people of the world should attain some achievements. This is not to say that one must only seek a good reputation, but should instead contribute something to mankind. A person who seeks a comfortable life is also one who seeks material gains; a person who has a public-spirited mind is also one who seeks to realize an ideal. Regardless of whether it is the pursuit of material gains or of idealism, it is an external pursuit. This was what Zhuangzi called ‘expecting something’, which meant that one had to depend on external factors to achieve satisfaction. However, Confucius also said, “If I could know the Way in the morning, then I would have no regrets about dying in the evening.” [The Analects – Li Ren] If you could achieve the Way, then you would not have to depend on external factors. You would naturally attain a state of self-accomplishment. That’s why Tao Yuanming said, “Poverty and wealth are in constant conflict; when the Way is achieved, one is always serene.” [In Praise of Destitute Scholars] When the Way prevails in your mind, you will naturally attain a state of peace and happiness and will never be influenced by external states such as hunger, cold and hardship. This was exactly the state that Tao Yuanming achieved finally after undergoing numerous setbacks and tribulations.
In the past, he used to seek externally and that was how he landed himself on such a tumultuous path. Now that he had awakened, he said, “Giving up everything for the sake of a meal, a mere morsel was already more than enough.” ‘Giving up everything’ means to sacrifice all that you have.
There are some people who would go all out to seek external gratification, even to the extent of sacrificing their most precious inherent nature. However, in actual fact, the things that a person requires in life are very few. In his poem “On Moving House,” Tao Yuanming said, “A shabby cottage need not be spacious, as long as it provides shelter for the beds and chairs.” Then in “The Return,” he wrote,
“I know how to be content with a just a little hut.” As long as the house can accommodate your beds and chairs, that is enough. As the saying goes,
“The mole that drinks from the river takes only enough to fill its belly.” What do you want so many things for? If only a person could put a stop to his mad pursuits, it would be very easy for him to find a place of refuge. Therefore, Tao decided finally: “Afraid that this was not a good idea, I ended my trip and headed back to my cozy home.” “This” refers to the long journey that he mentioned in the first line. ‘Ming ji’ was a term that was frequently used during the Wei and Jin dynasties and it means ‘a good idea’. Tao admitted that the path he took before was the wrong move and that it was not a good solution. That was why he now wanted to stop his carriage and return to the countryside to live in seclusion. The word “carriage” also symbolizes the path and long journey that he took in his younger days. Furthermore, the long journey was an allusion to the external seeking that he had engaged in when he was young. Now, he wanted to rein in his outward-seeking carriage and return to his fields to live as a recluse.
To be continued