Pilgrim of the Clouds: Poems and Essays from Ming China, by Yuan Hung-tao, translated by Jonathan Chaves
Weatherhill, Inc., $15
Until the twentieth century, most scholars and translators generally regarded the writers of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China, and in particular the poets, as so decidedly inferior to their T’ang Dynasty (618-907) counterparts that they did not need to be regarded with undue seriousness. Happily, this injustice has been rectified by the efforts of many people, but none more so than those of Jonathan Chaves, whose brilliant English translation of the work of Yuan Hung-tao, Pilgrim of the Clouds: Poems and Essays from Ming China, has given new voice to a literary genius who had hitherto been consigned to underserved obscurity.
Yuan (1568-1610) epitomizes the ideal Chinese character, for he is Confucianist in his engagement with all the expressions of human society, Taoist in his balanced relationship with and appreciation for the natural world, and Buddhist in his spiritual quest for enlightenment. Above all, Yuan was a courageous individualist who did not allow anything, including the bureaucratic imperatives that attended and shaped his official duties as a magistrate, to usurp his judgment, even if acting on his moral convictions brought him, as it inevitably did, considerable personal misfortune and hardship.
A cultured, well-educated man, Yuan found his judicial work onerous, since it largely involved hearing cases in small towns and provincial villages that usually did not involve anything weightier than settling disputes between farmers. After enduring years of such mind-numbing proceedings, he published his contempt for them in a poem, “Leaving Po-Hsiang at Dawn,” which contains a line that will resonate with anyone who has been trapped in an odious job: “These official journeys are like food stuck in the teeth.” He then narrates how, despite arising in the morning with a hangover, the consequence of needing strong drink to get himself through his tedious workdays, he was alert enough to notice two figures by the roadside as he was leaving town, and in them he found the very image of his personal predicament: “A girl stands in front of an inn, her hair uncombed./A Buddhist monk boils water in a little hut.” These two people constituted a painful summary of Yuan’s current state; on the one hand, he was, like the girl, a prostitute, for he was squandering his talents, or, more precisely, he was selling them, for no worthy purpose, and on the other, he saw in the monk a reminder that he was a failed spiritual aspirant, who, like many individuals, kept postponing his life’s true vocation for the sake of a tawdry financial security.
By publishing this provocative poem, Yuan realized what had perhaps been his wish in broadcasting it, for his next poem is titled “On Receiving News of My Termination,” and in it appears the line which could stand as the unofficial motto of his remaining years: “The time has come for me to devote myself to my hiker’s stick,” and indeed, Yuan subsequently spent the larger portion of his life traveling and writing. However, like Odysseus, who, acquainted with the testing vicissitudes of constant wandering, declared that, “Hardest of all on mortal man is traveling,” Yuan harbored no illusions about the suffering and loneliness that can sometimes complicate the freedom found in a life spent on the road: “Travel is the root of sorrow, clings to it like glue.”
Though Yuan was no stranger to deprivation, readers will nonetheless find considerable wit in his poems and essays, and numbered among his many virtues is the commendable trait of not taking himself too seriously. For instance, on one occasion he writes with surprised delight about coming upon some of his verses that had been carved into the stone wall of a pagoda: “They fill the air, like the chirping of a worm;” but his joy is immediately balanced by the sobering realization that everything in this world is impermanent: “Soon they will be eaten away by the moss or effaced by the wind and rain.” With puckish irony, he then stamps the poetry with his proprietary seal, in a bittersweet rejoinder to the knowlege that in this cloudy world, governed ceaselessly by flux and flow, and in which we are all temporarily pilgrims, no one can ultimately claim ownership of anything.
In the course of his journeys, Yuan wrote about almost every expression of our common humanity, in all its glories and follies, and some of his best poems are about friendship and love. In fact, “The Twenty-First Day of the Seventh Month: A memory returned to me and I wrote it down” should be numbered among the most poignant love poems in world literature. Yuan’s charming essays are as diverse in subject matter and tone as his poetry, and in them, governed by the traditional Chinese mandate to investigate all things, Yuan writes about graffiti, ghosts, and meetings with strange people. In everything that he published, Yuan proves himself to be mindful of the potential for creative expression that is inherent in every moment, however banal it might seem to be. Consequently, few authors possess Yuan’s almost boundless capacity to at once edify and delight his audience.
Americans conversant with their national literature will find in the work of Yuan Hung-tao many affinities with the literary productions of Henry David Thoreau, Jack Kerouac, and, perhaps above all, Gary Snyder. This fact is not surprising, since these American authors all gave literary expression to the East Asian cultural traditions found in Yuan’s work, albeit in different degrees and for varied purposes. These four highly individualistic writers also share the understanding that extended periods of silence and solitude are necessary prerequisites for all authentic spiritual and creative endeavors.
In his masterful translation of Yuan’s work, Jonathan Chaves has done more than give the English-speaking world access to a great writer, he has also presented it with a profoundly interesting human being who has more than a little to offer our troubled times. Society in China’s late Ming period underwent trials that are remarkably similar to those which currently afflict twenty-first century America, including an erosion of public confidence in the institutions of government, education, and finance. Having endured and even triumphed over such challenges, and having learned to appreciate both the peril and possibility that attend living in a time of intellectual and cultural upheaval, Yuan Hung-tao is a worthy companion for any sojourn, however testing, including and especially the one that we all take through life.