Madison Morrison’s Web / Topics / Kant and Chinese Literati Landscape Painting
Travel in Chinese Poetry

II.b.  Travel in Chinese Poetry

When we turn to examine individual literati landscape paintings, which often include the figure of a solitary traveler, we will see examples of Travel (in German, “Fahren”) and Experience (Kant’s “Erfahrung”). For now, however, I will offer examples of the theme of Travel, not in Chinese painting but rather in Chinese poetry, drawing my examples from Burton Watson’s Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century. (The best Chinese poetry precedes the Yuan dynasty.)


Despite its new modern highways, despite having bought more automobiles in the past year than were bought in the USA, China is still relatively impassible, especially when it comes to long distance travel. (In Excelling I describe a journey by railroad from Chengdu to Kunming on a single track, the recent construction of which required over 400 bridges and tunnels carved from rock.) Run your hand across a topographical map of China and it feels like heavy corduroy, so frequent the high mountain ranges.

Before the train and the car, Chinese traveled through these mountains for the most part on foot, not even on horseback, for the pathways were too narrow to allow for a steed, much less for a comfortable carriage. Nonetheless, many people traveled (if mostly the wealthy, or bureaucrats sent out on embassies, or others displaced by political events). Enough background. The opening lines of a Han dynasty poem:

1. On and on, going on and on,
away from you to live apart,
ten thousand li and more between us,
each at opposite ends of the sky.
The road I travel is steep and long;
who knows when we meet again?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

3. Green green the cypress on the ridge,
stones heaped about in mountain streams:
between heaven and earth our lives rush past
like travelers with a long road to go.

The poems that these lines occur in illustrate the common theme of separation but also life experience. Many, from various dynasties, chronicle the forced march of troops — foot soldiers, officers, camp followers, accompanied by carts bearing supplies:

North we climb the T’ai-hang Mountains;
the going’s hard on these steep heights!
Sheep Gut Slop dips and doubles,
enough to make the cartwheels crack.

Such imagery we frequently glimpse in Chinese landscape painting; other images but rarely: “Crouching bears, black and brown, watch us pass; tigers and leopards howl beside the trail.” Thus earlier poems, from the Han to the T’ang (these verses by Ts’ao Ts’ao, 155-220) often differ in detail from literati landscape painting (Yuan to Ch’ing). Nonetheless the underlying experience of travel is central to both, serving to create life experience and comment on it in metaphor, but also, as we will see, on Erfahrung, or Experience. Thus both Fahren and Erfahrung figure in both Chinese poetry and painting.

In some poems, especially the best known of T’ao Yuan-ming, himself one of China’s best-known poets, the traveler’s experience, here a king’s, is appreciated vicariously:

I’ve finished plowing, done the planting too;
time now it is to return to my books.

Often the literati painter represents a solitary reader, reclined in his hut with a book.

A cramped lane far from the deep wheel tracks,
but once in a while an old friend turns his carriage here.

Travelers arrive, or pass the reader by; or he recalls them from earlier days or legends.

We talk together happily, dipping spring wine,
while I pick some greens from my garden.
A fine rain comes from the east,
pleasant breezes along with it.
I browse through the tale of the Chou king,
let my eyes wander over pictures of hills and seas.
In the space of a nod I’ve toured the universe —
how could I be other than happy?

As poems appear in colophons that quote them, so paintings appear in poems.

In T’ao Yuan-ming’s best known “Poem on the Peach Blossom Spring” the narrator travels to an idyllic place cut off from history and present-day reality. We enter not the future but another realm, the imagined exotic. Both poem and prose preface are too long (and famous) to quote.

Literati paintings are notable for their clear skies and serene days, for their perpetual idylls. Sung paintings, on the other hand, often depict storms, or driving rain, or mists. If we return to the T’ang and its greatest poet, Tu Fu, we find him writing of travel in harsh, politically exiguous conditions, as in his account of a forced family journey:

I remember when we first fled the rebels,
hurrying north over dangerous trails;
night deepened on P’eng-ya Road,
the moon shone over White-water Hills.
A whole family endlessly trudging,
begging without shame from the people we met:
valley birds sang, a jangle of soft voices;
we didn’t see a single traveler returning.

Our life experience has a limit, from which we never return. Likewise war’s experience, from which the defeated soldier may not return. (Tu Fu is fleeing Ch’ang-an with his family to avoid armies led by An Lu-shan in one of history’s most famous rebellions.)

The baby girl in her hunger bit me.
fearful that tigers or wolves would hear her cries,
I hugged her to my chest, muffling her mouth,
but she squirmed and wailed louder than before.

The painter’s art, despite its musical instruments, is soundless; but the poet has in his verse another music. He also extends time more fully than the landscape painter.

Ten days, half in rain and thunder,
through mud and slime we pulled each other on.
There was no escaping from the rain,
trails slick, clothes wet and clammy;
getting past the hardest places,
a whole day advanced us no more than three or four li.

Such effects go beyond the hanging scroll (if not the hand scroll) but can also be implied.

Mornings we traveled by rock-bedded streams,
evenings camped in mists that closed in the sky.

For the Chinese viewer, rock-bedded streams and enclosing mist can evoke, along with the colophon, narrative detail from legends, or even from poems such as Tu Fu’s. In the second half of his narrative the poet recounts being taken in by a friend’s family, the next day departing amidst farewells, another familiar theme in Chinese landscape painting. Most of the details in Tu Fu’s poems, though, have no precedent in the painter’s art. The following, however, from a poem by Han Yu, reveal artistic correspondences.

Clouds blanket the Ch’in Range — which way is home?
Snow blocks the Lan Pass — my horse will not go on.

The poem’s title, again like the colophons on paintings (which often give their titles), enlarges “Written on My Way into Exile When I Reached the Lan-t’ien Pass and Shown to my Brother’s Grandson Hsing.” Experience lives on to be re-experienced. Paintings likewise survive to be viewed by their collectors and imitated by later painters.

Po Chu-i, the most prolific of the T’ang poets, often wrote of partings and farewells. He himself was a stay-at-home who experienced travel vicariously for the most part. When we witness wine-drinking in later paintings, both artist and viewer may well be recalling such a famous poem as Po Chu-i’s “Better Come Drink Wine with Me”:

Don’t go hide in the deep mountain —
you'll only come to hate it. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Don’t go off and be a farmer —
you'll only make yourself miserable. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Don't go climbing up to the blue clouds [the world of high government office] —
the blue clouds are rife with passion and hate . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Don’t go into the realm of red dust [the marketplace] —
it wears out a person’s spirit and strength . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Each eight-line stanza ends with the same couplet-refrain:

Better come drink wine with me;
together we’ll get quietly, quietly drunk.

Thus a series of negative travels. Han-shan, the Master of Cold Mountain (from which he takes his pen name), returns us to actual travel, in the T’ien-t’ai range that stretches along the seacoast in northeastern Chekiang Province. (Han-shan’s Buddhistic verse probably dates from the late 8th or early 9th centuries.)

As long as I was living in the village
they said I was the finest man around.
But yesterday I went to the city
and even the dogs eyed me askance . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Han-shan’s eight-line stanzas include future or imaginary travel:

Thinking of this [the loss of friends] I’m filled with sadness,
a sadness I can hardly endure.
What shall I do? What shall I do?
Take this old body home and hide it in the mountains!"

They also include past or retrospective travel, frequently hyperbolical:

I think of all the places I’ve been,
chasing from one famous spot to another.
Delighting in mountains, I scaled the mile-high peaks;
loving the water, I sailed a thousand rivers.

Resuming the theme of musical farewell, often seen in paintings, he says:

I held farewell parties with my friends in Lute Valley,
brought my zither and played on Parrot Shoals.

Finally, though, he returns to the present:

Who would guess I’d end up under a pine tree,
clasping my knees in the whispering cold?

Undeterred, he sets out again, on a trail that quickly turns metaphorical:

I climb the road to Cold Mountain,
the road to Cold Mountain that never ends.
The valleys are long and strewn with stones,
the streams broad and banked with thick grass.
Moss is slippery, though no rain has fallen;
pines sigh but it isn’t the wind.
Who can break from the snares of the world
and sit with me among the white clouds?

Up to this point his imagery is compatible with that of landscape painting, but now he diverges to describe a more spectral, nighttime realm:

Cold Mountain is full of weird sights;
people who try to climb it always get scared.
When the moon shines, the water glints and sparkles;
when the wind blows, the grasses rustle and sigh.

Momentarily the poet returns to realism, only to verge again into speculation:

The place where I spend my days
is farther away than I can tell.
Without a wind the wild vines stir;
no fog, yet the bamboos are always dark.
Whom do the valley streams sob for?
Why do the mists huddle together?
At noon, sitting in my hut,
I realize for the first time that the sun has risen.

At this point he turns to Buddhist maxim, celebrating the Mahayanist conviction that the very experiences of daily life, “painful or peaceful,” as Watson says, “are the stuff that enlightenment is made of”:

As for me, I delight in the everyday Way,
among mist-wrapped vines and rocky caves.
Here in the wilderness I’m completely free,
with my friends, the white clouds, idling forever.
These are roads but they do not reach the world.
Since I’m mindless, who can rouse my thoughts?

Thus is T’ao Yuan-ming’s imagined exotic tinged with Buddhist doctrine. But Han-shan is not finished; first he returns to an earlier scene in his own poem, a scene of domestic labor in which his wife had been plying the shuttle:

Last night in a dream I returned to my old home
and saw my wife weaving at her loom.
She held her shuttle poised, as though lost in thought,
as though she had no strength to lift it further.

Continuing his search for other roads, other “ways,” Han-shan generalizes:

Men these days search for a way through the clouds,
but the Cloud Way is dark and without sign.
The mountains are high and often steep and rocky;
in the broadest valleys the sun seldom shines.

What is possible? he seems to ask (compare Kant’s “possible experience”). What is possible, we might ask, in poetry but not in monochromatic painting?

Green crests before you and behind,
white clouds to east and west--
do you want to know where the Cloud Way lies?
There it is, in the midst of Nothing!

The poet returns to realistic images only to conclude philosophically:

Have I a body or have I none?
Am I who I am or am I not?

Thus the problem of body and spirit, of body and soul is broached; thus the problem of identity. “Pondering these questions,” says Han-shan,

I sit leaning against the cliff while the years go by,
till the green grass grows between my feet
and the red dust settles on my head
and the men of the world, thinking me dead,
come with offerings of wine and fruit to lay by my corpse.

An ingenious final quatrain introduces the reader into the midst of these speculations:

Do you have the poems of Han-shan in your house?
They’re better for you than sutra-reading!
Write them out and paste them on a screen
where you can glance them over from time to time.

Such self-reflexivity becomes a standard mode in the Sung, especially in the work of Su Tung-p’o, its greatest poet (and perhaps the greatest that China has ever produced). He too is devoted to travel, imitating Tzu-yu in “Treading the Green,” describing his own route by water from the capital to Hangchow in “I Travel Day and Night,” chronicling a tour of the district, as established bureaucrat in “On the Road to Hsin-ch’eng,” “The New Year’s Eve Blizzard,” on his way from Mi-chou to the capital, before proceeding to his next post as governor of Hsu-chou. His poetic details in “Eastern Slope” are reminiscent of details in Shen Chou’s Ming dynasty paintings.

The obdurate rockiness of the late Ch’ing dynasty Wang Yuan-ch’i’s mountain scapes may owe something to Su Tung-p’o’s “White Crane Hill,” for he himself may have had in mind, as he often more literally does, the landscape painter’s art. “Paths to the river,” he writes, “are a rocky hell; I wince at the water bearer’s aching back.

I hired four men, put them to work
hacking through layers of obdurate rock.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Mountain rock must end sometime —
stubborn as I am, I won’t give up.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
All my life has been like this —

Like the four Ch’ing masters surnamed Wang, Su Tung-p’o is also devoted to history. “Long Ago I Lived in the Country” describes details that might be found in earlier poems or paintings and concludes, “But those days are gone — I see them only in a painting.” Before we leave Su Tung- p’o behind, I will quote an entire poem, “Written on a Painting Entitled ‘Misty Yangtze and Folded Hills’ in the Collection of Wang Ting-kuo":

Above the river, heavy on the heart, thousandfold hills:
layers of green floating in the sky like mist.
Mountains? cloud? too far away to tell
till clouds part, mist scatters, on mountains that remain.
Then I see, in gorge cliffs, black-green clefts
where a hundred waterfalls leap from the sky,
threading woods, tangling rocks, lost and seen again,
falling to valley mouths to feed swift streams.
Where the river broadens, mountains part, foothill forests end,
a small bridge, a country store set against the slope:
now and then travelers pass beyond tall trees;
a fishing boat — one speck where the river swallows the sky.
Tell me, where did you get this painting
sketched with these clean and certain strokes?
I didn’t know the world had such places —
I’ll go at once and buy some land!
But perhaps you’ve never seen those hidden spots
near Wu-ch’ang and Fan-k’ou, where I lived five years —
Spring wind shook the river and sky was everywhere;
evening clouds rolled back the rain on gentle mountains;
from scarlet maples, crows flapped down to keep the boatman company;
from tall pines, snow tumbled, startling his drunken sleep.
The peach flowers, the stream [in T’ao Yuan-ming] are in the world of men!
Wu-ling is not for immortals only.
Rivers, hills, clean and empty: I live in city dust,
and though roads go there, they’re not for me.
I give back your picture and sigh three sighs;
my hill friends will soon be sending poems to call me home.

It is a poem written on a painting, a poem that describes the painting in question, that enters into the experience of the painting perhaps more profoundly and intimately than the painter himself had. Hyperbolical language (“a hundred waterfalls”) expands the compass of the scroll (in Space and Time). Coyly Su Tung-p’o takes the painter’s landscape for reality and says, “I'll go at once and buy some land!” He then reverts to another locale of his own experience, Wu-ch’ang, and thereupon begins composing another landscape of his own, also drawn from experience. Whereupon he turns to compare his to the mythical landscape in T’ao Yuan-ming’s poem, then to resolve the two: “Wu-ling is not for immortals only.” Thus he has it both ways: His own landscape is both real and ideal (in Kant’s terms, empirical and transcendental). Su Tung-p’o, however, no longer lives in Wu-ch’ang. “I live in city dust” (instead), “and though roads go there, they’re not for me.” He rejects the vision of the painting (“I give back your picture”) but sighs. Like the region described therein, it has become a part of him (of his Experience). “My hill friends,” he concludes,” who live there, “will soon be sending poems (describing their Experience of Wu-ch’ang? their Experience of Wu-ling?) “to call me home.”


III.a. A summary of James Luchte’s analysis of Kant