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Journey to the Immortal Peach Garden

As Tang poetry sometimes seems remote from our modern experience, it may help us better understand it by thinking about analogs in literature closer to home. And in some ways, there is no better Western analog to Tang poetry, particularly in its early and middle period, than English Romantic poetry of the 19th century.

If so, Wang Wei -- who wrote the poem I am translating this week -- would have to be considered the Tang equivalent of William Wordsworth. Not just because of the common set of initials that the two men share, but more importantly because they are both great nature poets who were similarly inclined to eloquence in the presence of a beautiful landscape. In fact, Wang Wei was accomplished as both a poet and a painter and thus he was doubly renowned for vivid renderings of his natural surroundings. Although none of his paintings have survived (except in the form of copies made by subsequent artists), as Su Shi (another noted Chinese poet) said, Wang Wei’s poems often hold a painting within them.

A view of Wuling The poem I am translating this week is not exactly typical of Wang’s landscapes. It is a landscape of a supernatural setting – the Immortal Peach Garden -- that has figured prominently in Chinese myth and fable for almost two millenniums. Not only is the fruit of this garden delectable but in some accounts (such as the Adventures of Monkey King) the peaches from the garden can confer super-longevity in a single bite. Moreover, in Wang’s poem, the Peach Garden has a decidedly utopian glow. It’s a garden cut off from modernity and civilization, filled with friendliness and tranquility. So the place Wang describes here not only bears strong similarity to the 19th century Romantic idyll of nature, evoking an image of life in a simpler, pre-industrial time, but it is also a precursor to Shangri-La and David Hilton’s Lost Horizon. The photos that I've selected to accompany this translation are one of those Chinese landscapes of surreal beauty, very suited to the poem, and they also happen to be pictures from the Wuling region in China, which is mentioned in the third stanza.

Mist over Wuling MountainsIn considering Wang’s utopian impulses we should remember that China during the Tang Dynasty was in some ways comparable to England in the 19th century – an empire that straddled the continent of Asia, if not quite the entire world. And Tang culture and commerce both reached an incredible level of sophistication during this period driven by the wonders and riches of the world pouring into China via the Silk Route. So Wang’s embrace of simplicity and nature likewise evidences his move away from the bustling commerce and worldly splendors of the Imperial capital in Chang An.

There’s one other thing I should mention – if you will indulge me, an unschooled Sinologist, in a moment of idle speculation. The common thinking is that cultural influence primarily traveled from West to East along the Silk Road with Buddhism being the prime example, making its way from India to China. But the idea of the Immortal Peach Garden may be an example of cultural influence traveling in the reverse direction. This poem by Wang dates to the first half of the 8th century and it is inspired by even earlier references in Chinese literature, including those from Tao Yuanming that go back to the 4th century, whereas (according to the writer Michael Wood) the earliest references to Shangri-La, or Shambhala, on the western slopes of the Himalayas are relative recent by comparison, only going back to around 1000 AD in Indian and Tibetan texts. To my mind, it seems perfectly fitting that China should properly be credited with the invention of both gunpowder and Utopia, as it’s easy to see how these two hallmarks of civilization go hand in hand.

Journey to the Immortal Peach Garden

A fisherman in his boat
Travels along with the current
Gazing at distant lofty peaks
Enjoying the spring scene
He passes an ancient ferry crossing
And then drifts by stands of peach trees
Seemingly endless in number
He sits and stares
At a forest of pink blossoms
Lining both banks
Unaware of the distance traversed
Onward to the furthest extent
Into world of Nature
To its very headwaters
He journeys seeing
No other man

Then through a narrow cleft
In the mountains he passes
Along a secret path
At last arriving in a valley
With an opening vast
Across a level plain he gazes
Where as far as his eyes can see
Clouds and trees are intermingled
And there’s a settlement
Of a thousand homes or so
Scattered amidst a forest grove

A wood gatherer
Comes out to offer greetings
Using an old Han name
And all the residents here
Seem strangely garbed
With clothes that date back
At least to Qin times
Rustic they appear
Like they are from Wuling
And have lived long apart
Tending these isolated
Fields and gardens

Night passes in bright moonlight
Under towering pines
The place feels sheltered and calm
And when dawn comes again
It reveals he’s spent the night
Amidst a blanket of clouds
And now in daylight
The chickens and dogs
Begin clamoring
Startled by this unexpected visitor
And all the people of the village
Gather around to compete in courtesy
Pressing their queries about
From whence the fisherman came

In the public square
And down the well-swept village lanes
He is welcomed everywhere
By peach blossoms opening
And when twilight comes again
The neighbors bring fish
And firewood and fresh
Water to share

And then he learns
The history of this garden
How the people here fled
Their prior home
Leaving behind
All earthly cares
And by and by
Became Immortals
Whereupon they resolved
Always to remain
Here in this hidden valley
Unknown to the world outside
Safe from prying eyes that might gaze
But see only empty air
And clouds clinging
To the mountains
Neither hearing nor seeing
Completely unsuspecting of
The living spirits within

Still being a man of the earth
And not fully accustomed
To such Immortal beings
The fisherman soon
Begins to yearn
For his homeland
Thinking he might venture
By arduous means
Back over rivers and mountains
To reverse his journey
So he prepares to leave

Making note to himself
Of the route he’d first taken
Hoping some day He might come again
Over these very same
Mountains and streams
Forgetting how everything
In Nature
Is subject to change

But then in the ensuing days
Whenever the fisherman
Tries to retrace his steps
Into the wilderness deep
Through twists and turns
Hoping to reach
That very same cloud
Shrouded forest
Where peach trees abounded
Always blooming
In eternal spring
No matter which way he turns
He can no longer discern
The way back
To that Immortal garden


















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In the Tang Spirit,
Lan Hua - April 8, 2012