Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

The Meaning of Impermanence in Wang Wei's Poetry

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

The Meaning of Impermanence in Wang Wei's Poetry

Article excerpt

The Passage of Time

For Wang Wei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (701-61), the passage of time is the only true constant. All other things, including life, are impermanent. In time, a man grows from a child, full of vitality and potential, to an elderly man who can do little more than ruminate on times gone by. Much like sand in an hourglass, our life force is constantly draining from the moment we're born until the day we die. Life's impermanence, though, is precisely what gives it meaning. our mortality makes our time precious and creates a lens through which we can quantify our emotions and experiences. The impermanence of life is the foundation of the meaning we find in it, but it comes at the cost of inner turmoil: an inevitable fear of and resistance to mortality that must be overcome.

In Wang's near four hundred extant poems, two stand out for their reflection on the meaning of life's impermanence: "Farewell to Spring" ("Songchun ci") and "An Autumn Night, Sitting Alone" ("Qiuye duzuo" , alternately titled "Expressing My Mind on a Winter Night ("Dongye shuhai")). Both poems describe the cycle of quick seasonal changes, which in turn are a metaphor for the unstoppable passage of time. The first poem reads:

   Each day drains man, but
   Each year returns the spring.
   Happiness resides in a wine cup,
   Mourn not the blossoms' passing. (1)

   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII],
   Day day men empty/vain old
   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].
   Year year spring again return
   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII],
   Mutual happiness at cup win
   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].
   Don't cherish flower fly (Wang 1992, 191)

Its title "Farewell to Spring" calls to mind the imminent seasonal change from spring to summer, while its second line describes the inevitable return of spring after winter. In the last line, the "flying" of the flower further references the autumnal falling of a flower's petals. Thus, all four seasons form a repeated cycle as the poem progresses. The choice of the poetic genre Jueju [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Stopped Short), the shortest form of Chinese poetry, reinforces the impression of quick passage of time.

The titles and the content of the second poem likewise reference the quick passage of time. The poem reads:

   Sitting alone, I lament my hair whitening,
   In the empty hall, it is almost nine. (2)
   The mountain fruits fall in the rain,
   Grasshoppers cry under the lamp.
   White hair is hard to change after all,
   Just like gold can't be made.
   Ridding off aging and sickness,
   One must learn the way of no-rebirth.

   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII],
   Alone sit grief two sideburns
   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII],
   Empty hall almost second watch
   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII],
   Rain in mountain fruit fall
   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII],
   Lamp under grass insect cry
   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII],
   White hair eventually difficult change
   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII],
   Yellow gold not able to form
   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII],
   Desire know rid old ill
   [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].
   Only learn no birth (Peng et al, 126.1280) (3)

The first title speaks of an autumn night while its alternate title tells of a winter night. The fall of the mountain fruits described in the third line brings an image of autumn's arrival. This line, along with the first and the alternate titles, reinforces the notion of the all-to-quick passage of time. This notion is also referenced in the temporal leaps between the title and the third line. However, both the titles and the content of the poem repeatedly emphasize the time of night. The second line fixes the time as being near nine o'clock ("second watch," or erjing). While the season passes quickly through the progression of the poem, the night seems to be almost painfully long. This contrast between quick seasonal changes and nighttime stillness is deliberate. …

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