Major poems, including “Written While Crossing the Yellow River to Qing-he,” “To the Frontier,” “For Vice-Magistrate Zhang,” and “The Deer Enclosure,” can be found in The Poetry of Wang Wei: New Translations and Commentary, 1980 (Pauline Yu, translator); and in Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei, 1991 (Willis Barnstone, Tony Barnstone, and Xu Haixin, translators)
The Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China was a golden age of poetry in Chinese civilization, in which more than fifty thousand poems were composed by twenty-three hundred poets. In part this was because of the policies of a woman named Wu Zhao, originally the young concubine of the Emperor Tai Zong and later, beginning in 690, the only woman in Chinese history to rule as sovereign in her own right. As a way of enlarging the social base of the governing classes, and of eroding in the process the power of the traditional aristocracy that had opposed her rise to power, Wu Zhao reformed the examination system through which scholars became officials. She made it more open to all, and she also made the composition of poetry a major part of the system.
The outpouring of poetry that resulted reached its pinnacle during the period extending from 713 to 765, which scholars have designated the High Tang. Wang Wei (wahng way), along with Du Fu (or Tu Fu) and Li Bo (or Li Po), is one of the three major poets of this period and the Chinese poet most frequently translated into English. Whereas Du Fu embodies the Confucian virtues of compassion and service, and Li Bo the romantic, spontaneous individualism of Daoist spirituality, Wang Wei is best known for his meditative, Buddhist-inspired nature poetry.
In reality Wang displays quite a wide range of accomplishment, and not a small part of his identity as a poet involves his ability to encompass opposites. In essence he might most accurately be considered a recluse-official: an official who serves conscientiously and whose career grows steadily throughout his life but one who writes an exquisitely understated contemplative poetry of retreat from the world.
From the beginning Wang Wei encompasses both extremes of the political spectrum that emerged during his lifetime. On one hand, he is related to powerful old aristocratic families on both sides of his family. On the other, as an immensely gifted and talented scholar he was able to move through the system of official examinations as one of the new, self-made literati of his time.
Wang Wei was something of a child prodigy. He began composing poetry at the age of nine and left home for the capital of Changan at the age of fifteen. There he proved himself not only an accomplished poet but a painter and musician as well. At one point he wrote that painting was his truest and deepest calling. Certainly he casts a painterly eye on the objects and landscapes he portrays in his poetry. Su Dongpo, the well-known Song Dynasty poet, wrote of Wang Wei’s work: “In his poetry there is painting, and in his painting poetry.”
As a young man in the capital, Wang joined the entourage of Li Fan, the younger brother of the Emperor Xuanzong and the period’s foremost patron of the arts, and proved himself a quick success in the glittering and complex society of the Tang court. In 721 he passed the most difficult and most prestigious of the official examinations, the jinshi, or “presented scholar,” examination, which typically only 1 or 2 percent of candidates passed annually. He was then appointed to a position with the bureau of music, and his poetry at the time tended toward the complex, celebratory style of the court.
After a short period in office, Wang was involved in political trouble, perhaps the result of his close association with an imperial prince at a time when the emperor was trying to curb the influence of the princes, and in 723 Wang was sent to assume a minor position in Shandong Province at Zhizhou. He probably served in this position for about four years, during which time he mastered the style of the rich body of exile poetry, with its variations on the theme of loneliness and its complex treatment of duty and service. Many years later, in 738, during a mission to the northwest, he would master the style of frontier poetry, which typically evoked vast, impersonal landscapes and the clash of warfare.
Before his return to the capital in 734, Wang undertook an extensive tour of the eastern provinces, during which he became interested in several kinds of religious experience: in local shamanistic cults, popular Daoism, and meditative Buddhism, studying with a Chan (or Zen) Buddhist master. All these religious interests came to be reflected in the poetry of this period. However, Wang’s quality of austere simplicity and the nonjudgmental acceptance of a mind perfectly at one with the objects of nature that it beholds probably derived from his experiences with Chan Buddhist meditation; these are the characteristics that mark his subsequent, and most admired, poems.
During the tumultuous rebellion of An Lu-shan in 755, the emperor fled from the capital, and Wang Wei was captured by rebel forces and forced to serve in their regime. He was then charged with collaboration when the monarchy was restored in 757. Finally he was exonerated, largely on the basis of the eloquence with which he lamented the downfall of the emperor in two poems written during the rebellion. Despite, or perhaps because of, these episodes in his career, he continued to write meditative, reclusive poems. In 759, two years before his death–as he continued to write exquisite poems expressing renunciation of and retreat from the world of officialdom–he was promoted to the highest post he had yet attained, assistant secretary of state.