Near the end of the semester, in World Literature, I ask the students to write a short essay on their favorite writer in the course, detailing what makes them like him or her. It’s surprising how many of them pick Tao Qian of the Chin Dynasty of two millennia ago, over Western or more recent writers.

One reason could be that he’s easy to read. Reading literature comes pretty hard for the majority of young adults nowadays. Serious reading skills have been deteriorating for a long time in America, the advent of TV initiating the decline, then computers, the internet, cell phones piling on.   For many of my students, reading is an empty activity connected only to making good grades.  They have yet to have their first experienced in getting absorbed in a great book.  And maybe never will.  It saddens me to see them struggling with, say, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which are not only great books, but which in my young adulthood would have been called adolescent literature.

. . .

But back to Tao Qian. The first piece I assign, “The Peach Blossom Spring,” is a Shangri-La story, and who doesn’t like those? Who isn’t asking, on some level, does life have to be the fierce struggle that it is? Why can’t people just relax, get along and be kind to one another?

In “The Peach Blossom Spring,” a fisherman at dusk happens onto a narrow cave in a cliff with a light shining through from the other side.   Squeezing though the opening (like a birth), he discovers a community who has been isolated from the disorders of “normal” society for hundreds of years. The inhabitants dress and eat simply, live without hierarchy or ambition, are loving and generous to each other, as well as to him, a stranger. He hangs around a few days enjoying their kindness. They’re curious about the mainstream world from which he has strayed, but dismayed at the stories the he has to tell, full of the typical mayhem of “civilized” life.

When it comes time for him to leave, they tell him that “there is no need to mention our existence to outsiders.”   Later he tries to make a return trip to this place, but he cannot find the opening again, even though he had carefully mapped his way back.

The rest of the poems in our Tao Qian selection are autobiographical.  In “The Return,” he speaks of being poor and leaving behind his simple rural life to find clerical work in a city. But “before many days had passed,” he says, “I longed to give it up and go back home … because my instinct is all for freedom … and this going against myself really sickens me.  Whenever I have been involved in official life, I was mortgaging myself to my mouth and my belly….”

His poems generally flow out of the theme of receiving whatever comes with equanimity and grace. When his house burns down, now roofless, he enjoys the night sky. His heart “remains untrammeled still.” He remembers hearing of easier, more “full bellied” eras, but concludes that “since I was not born in such a time/Let me just go on watering my garden.”

In a selection entitled “Twenty Poems After Drinking Wine,” a friend, bearing a gift of a jug of wine, knocks on his door to give him a neighborly warning that he should work harder at keeping up appearances: “Dressed in rags beneath a roof of thatch/Is not the way a gentleman should live.”

Tao Qian responds: “My sincere thanks for your advice,…/ It’s my nature keeps me out of tune./… To go against oneself is a real mistake./ So let’s just have a drink of this together–/ There’s no turning back my carriage now.”

At home with himself, he has no axe to grind against those who choose more worldly, socially conventional paths. But for him, running away from the center of his life — a running away which inevitable takes the form of ambition — simply doesn’t work.  He never proselytizes, rather speaks only for himself.

In “Returning to the Farm to Dwell,” he writes: “Above the houses smoke hangs in the air./ A dog is barking somewhere in a hidden lane./ A cock crows from the top of a mulberry tree./ My home remains unsoiled by worldly dust./ Within bare rooms I have my peace of mind….”

. . .

I’m sure it’s not only that he’s easy to read that the students pick Tao Qian as their favorite writer.  His indifference to worldly success also intrigues them. (Surely Jesus expressed the same indifference, but that’s all been lost in the shuffle of capitalistic, good-citizenship Christianity.)  Is Tao Qian saying that it’s possible to just relax into this existence, without worry or guilt,… that it’s possible to live a life where you don’t do things that you don’t want to do, that others say you should do, and all that without becoming defensive against those that would correct you?

Tao Qian’s preference  for “being” over “doing” runs so contrary to their life training, it would be like a parent or a teacher saying, in reference to school: ” just relax, have fun, learn a little bit, take the ‘C’.”  In a “know-yourself-by-your-accomplishments” world, of course, my students’ interest in Tao Qian can be at most a brief infatuation, as it is for the teacher, although in my case, since I teach him every year, a recurring infatuation.  Tempting.  Tempting.  Could I still make the jump to where Tao Qian is.  Sometimes I see the end of my life approaching without, since childhood, ever having fully been here.  Rather, just getting things done.  Finally, just getting life done.  Getting life accomplished.

I suppose it’s not too late, but the hard part in Tao Qian’s life of freedom — harder even beyond braving the elements, wearing rags, experiencing hunger and the disapprobation of neighbors — would be the freedom to know myself daily, hourly as an ephemeral being.  Here today and gone tomorrow.  Disturbing thoughts about non-being are inevitable in a spacious, non-doing life, and maybe more than anything they are what keep us on the run.

For Tao Qian, if such thoughts became too overpowering, he considered himself blessed if he had a little wine on hand to drink.

. . .


In the day, he loafed at his ease,

like a useless Walt Whitman,

or tended his vegetable patch.

Hunger’s no fun, a man has to eat,

but freedom’s where it’s at.


And neighbors were generous,

he learned soon enough.


Sell my soul to please my guts?

he responded to their gentle taunts.

He’d done that once a few months.

In a city. Working as a magistrate.

But never again, he promised.


After his shack burned down

he slept like a child in the ashes.

What a better view of the night,

he reflected , living outside.


He drank wine when he had it,

shared it with friends, then read

poems they had made up together,

played the zither, contemplated

the shortness of this life.


Nothing was lost on Tao Qian






1 Comment

  1. Debbie Thompson

    Very nice, Jim. Another great writer/thinker saying to live simply, and we know there’s nothing more difficult to do. Thanks for the reminder!


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