- Once More, on the Empty Mountain
As you may be able to guess from the title of this essay, I'm going to spend some time talking about Wang Wei's famous poem, perhaps his most famous: "Deer Park," known familiarly among its thousands of English-speaking admirers as "the empty mountain poem." You can, by my count, find twenty-one versions of the poem, including authoritative treatments by Burton Watson and Gary Snyder in Eliot Weinberger's Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, plus an essay on Wang Wei by Octavio Paz. Since Weinberger's book first appeared, Arthur Sze and Willis and Tony Barnstone, with Xu Haixin, have also published notable versions.
In the face of this seeming surfeit of translations (several of which are excellent), I am going to dare to offer a new reading of the poem, one that attempts to take into account kinds of polysemy that only the Chinese written character can offer the poet—and his readers. Simply put, I'll try to show how Wang Wei uses the nature of his writing system to reinforce and deepen the experience offered in the poem. In order to do that, I have to talk briefly about the characters themselves. Most English-speaking readers may not know Chinese, or much about it, but even many contemporary Chinese readers may find the approach I'm going to take a new one. Ezra Pound struggled to find something like it in his The Chinese Written Character As a Medium for Poetry, but failed because he knew, through the notes of Ernest Fenollosa, too little (a little knowledge—a dangerous thing, indeed). The French semioticist François Cheng certainly understands this approach, but beyond four short examples in his Chinese Poetic Writing—including the brilliant explication of a line from another quatrain by Wang Wei—he was sparing in his use of it. I'll give it full play here, attempting to point out in this well-known poem the places where the special attributes of the Chinese writing system contribute to the [End Page 126] possibility of multiple and intertwining meanings for characters, lines, and the poem as a whole. The ease with which the characters now can be introduced into text, using the several excellent and relatively new Chinese word-processing systems, will make this sort of analysis more common in the future. Until very recently, none but the wealthiest of university presses could absorb the cost in money and time (for shipping to and from Hong Kong or Taiwan) of bilingual printing.
Before I begin my analysis, here is an extremely brief introduction for readers who don't know anything about the Chinese written character as a medium for poetry.
Three types of Chinese characters constitute more than ninety-nine percent of the writing system. The first type is the pictograph. The characters listed below are in a printed form that mimics the handwritten script that was stylized and standardized about twenty-two hundred years ago. From left to right, the characters below are sun, moon, tree, human being, female, child (or fine joke, philosopher), ear, eye, mountain, and gate.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
I suspect that for many readers, most if not all of these characters are, even in modern printed form, visually suggestive of the things that they are the words for. If, given the squared-off shapes of modern print, that seems a shaky position, you might note that all educated Chinese in Wang Wei's time, and most today, are also familiar with the less stylized, more clearly representational, older versions of the characters that were preserved in the scripts used both in the chop (personal seal) and in ceremonial and decorative calligraphy. This understanding of the printed form was reinforced, when necessary, by knowledge of the older forms.
Several hundred pictographs are commonly used in the written language, and more than a few of them are quite beautiful, even in their printed forms; but I've had to keep the examples to a minimum here and therefore have chosen ones, as you'll soon see, for reasons having to do with Wang Wei...