Imagine living in a time of great turmoil and incredible devastation in ancient China.
The world does not make any sense, because everything plummets into chaos as opposing factions of the Eastern Chin Dynasty fight each other for power. Men of high societal status and of honor serve their leaders through the rigorous demands of government service. Mortals escape these horrific times of darkness by observing the peace and tranquility of nature. However, one apparent lesson of these times is clear: Individuals cannot decide the time that they are born into; essentially, they must make the most of the time that they are given.
The previously depicted scenario is an accurate portrayal of the poet, T’ao Ch’ien’s life. The Taoist philosophy, which he believes in, allows him to escape these times of turmoil. His Taoist philosophy simply states that man must respect nature and peacefully co-exist with it. Although T’ao Ch’ien’s family was once part of the aristocracy, he is part of the ordinary-class.
T’ao Ch’ien’s series of poems entitled “Turning Seasons” focus on his joy and grievances from his experiences as a government official and as a farmer. His poetry also highlights the importance of nature and emotion.David Hinton, translator of The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien, emphasizes the importance of the connection between nature and emotion in T’ao’s poetry: “The outlines of T’ao Ch’ien’s life-his struggle to free himself from the constraints of official life and his eventual commitment to the life of a recluse-farmer, despite poverty and hardship-became one of the central, organizing myths in the Chinese tradition” (Hinton introduction from The Selected Poems Of T’ao Ch’ien 8). Hinton essentially states that T’ao faces a personal inner-struggle between his official obligations to the government and his desire to be at peace with nature.
During his government service, T’ao witnesses the poverty and the anguish that people felt. T’ao could not control the fact that he was born into chaotic times. However, he could control the individual choices that he made. In respect to his poetry, he writes about how his experiences, with society and nature, contribute to those individual choices.
In the first poem of the series of poems entitled “Turning Seasons”, T’ao Ch’ien uses nature as a metaphor to describe his feelings during a harder period of travel.The key lines that stand out in the poem are the following lines: “Out in spring clothes, / I cross eastern fields” (lines 3-4). This quote compares “spring clothes”(3) to “crossing eastern fields” (4). When T’ao Ch’ien makes this comparison, he is clearly stating that he is away from home.
Furthermore, T’ao refers to “eastern fields” (3), in order to compare his natural surroundings to his travels and to his sense of loneliness. The next lines that emphasize the importance of T’ao’s feelings are the following lines: “Gossamer mist blurs open/ skies. Feeling the south wind, / young grain ripples like wings”(6-8).They are a comparison between nature and T’ao’s escape from his hardship and grief.
The words “young grain ripples like wings”(8) indicate a new beginning and travel. The “wind”(7) is symbolic of travel while the “young grain”(8) is symbolic of new beginnings. Through his reference to these quotes, T’ao conveys a greater message: He cannot control the chaos that he sees during his official government work. He can only choose to be a good man by leaving the government service.
Essentially, his individual choice has brought him peace and has allowed him to appreciate his time on Earth.His choice has also brought him closer to nature and the Taoist way, because his soul would no longer see the sadness of government service. The second poem of this series describes T’ao’s newly found freedom after he leaves the government service. T’ao compares washing himself clean in a lake to a new start.
“Boundless, the lake’s immaculate/ skin boundless, I rinse myself/ clean” (1-3). The key expression that brings light to the meaning of this quotation is “immaculate/ skin” (1-2). “Immaculate/ skin” (1-2) refers to something that is free from moral errors.On the other hand, when T’ao is stating that he “rinses”(2) himself “clean” (3), he is saying that he is free from the mistakes of his past.
He is using nature as a means of comparison in this poem, because he is comparing the lake’s clean water to his new moral attitude. This new moral attitude is the attitude of a recluse-farmer. T’ao has chosen to become a recluse-farmer, because he wants to escape the heartache of society and government service. As a recluse farmer, he is free from the hardship of government service, because he free from the sight of human suffering.
Furthermore, he is also “raising”(7) the “winecup”(7) and is “taken by earth’s own joy”(8), because he is celebrating this freedom. Again, he has not chosen the type of family he was born into, but he has chosen his life style. His reference to the “earth’s joy” (8) indicates his appreciation for the natural surroundings on his farm. His life style, as a recluse farmer, allows him to appreciate nature and the Taoist way, because he co-exists peacefully with the natural surroundings on his farm.
The third and the fourth poems focus on expressing T’ao’s grief, because his life as a farmer does not change his present situation.In the third poem, he is “longing for/ that clear Yi River”(1-2), because he wants to live in peaceful times, like the time of his ancestors. In the fourth poem he is “unable to reach that/ golden age Huang and T’ang ruled”(6-7), because he cannot change the current social situation in China. Therefore, he is saddened, because he does not live in a time of prosperity.
Again, his quotations emphasize the fact that individuals can pick the choices that they make, but they cannot choose when they live or when they die.T’ao chooses to be at peace with nature by accepting the natural order of life and death. T’ao’s acceptance of the natural order, allows him to accept the nature and Taoist way of life. Nature is, after all, a cycle of life and death in itself.
The Taoist way needs life and death so that there is a balance between all living things. In conclusion, T’ao Ch’ien expresses his emotions and his understanding for nature through his poetry. He wants to co-exist with nature and the Taoist way of life. He emphasizes the importance of individual choices and accepts death as a part of life.
His lifestyle, after all, was the main choice of his life. He had chosen the life of a recluse farmer rather than subject himself to the ignorance of society. T’ao may not have chosen the time he was born into, but he chose how he spent that time on Earth well. “If his sensibility seems familiar, it is a measure of his lasting influence” (Hinton 8).
Turning Seasons Turning Seasons is about wandering in late spring. Spring clothes are all made, and everything in sight is tranquil. I wander beside my shadow, alone, my heart a blend of delight and grief.