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  • Han Shan's Transparent Eyeball:The Asian Roots of American Eco-poetry
  • Translated by Tony Barnstone (bio)

In 1984, I was twenty-three years old, the sort of man that the hermit-poet and irascible social critic Han Shan1 (c. 700–800 ce) would have described in this way:

A graceful and handsome young man,well-versed in canons and histories,everyone calls him a teacher,or addresses him as a scholar,but he fails to get an official post,and doesn't know how to use a plow.He wears only a shabby gown in winter,totally ruined by books.

(Barnstone 2005, 202)

I was ruined by books, using my college degree in literature to do data entry, temp work, window-washing in Silicon Valley, even working in a granola factory in Santa Cruz, California, which I know sounds like it must be a joke.

Yet the books that had ruined me also landed me my first teaching job, at the Beijing Foreign Studies Institute, in a China that was testing out how much it wanted to open up to Western culture and economic structures in the period following the death of Mao Zedong.

A Tangle of Roots

Though I was barely older than my students, I found myself teaching American and British literature, as well as English language and conversation, and I loved it. Partway through the first term, one of my best students in the language class, a young woman deeply interested in our conversations about life in America versus life in China, asked me a question that set me back on my heels a bit: "Professor Barnstone, we have heard this word 'individualism,' but we don't know what it means. Can you tell us?"

If I had known more at the time, I would have talked about the Chinese tradition of individualism, about the celebration of creative innovation in Chinese ars poeticas, and about the way in which Daoism provided an outlet [End Page xiii] for eccentrics and nonconformists who didn't fit into Confucian social and familial structures. I might have quoted the Chinese sayings "You can't build a house inside a house" or "If you follow someone, you will always be behind" (Barnstone 1996, 48). But, as I recall, I answered the question by discussing Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance."

Not long after, this student ceased coming to class. I wondered why, but didn't know until I chanced to meet her in the hallway between classes. I stopped her and cried, "What happened to you? Where did you go? You seemed to like the class so much."

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Tony," she whispered hurriedly. "I asked too many questions in your class. Someone has denounced me to the Party. I can't be seen talking to you."

And she rushed off, ducking her head.

It was a different China then than it is now, one where the nail that sticks up was more likely to get hammered down, where individuated clothes and hairstyles were still politically dangerous to wear, and where asking the wrong question could bring the weight of the Party down upon you. It saddened me.

Decades later, this story still saddens me. It does so because this young student suffered for evincing an interest in what a later political campaign would call "spiritual pollution" coming from the West. And yet, this tradition of individual idealism is also deeply rooted in her own Chinese culture. In fact, it emerges in the West in part because of the influence of Eastern religious and philosophical thought.

Like people, ideas travel. And they emigrate. And they take root. And they change. And some part of them remains connected to their homeland.

"But what does all of this have to do with eco-poetry?" you could ask.

I would assert that modern and contemporary American eco-poetry sprouts directly from the American Transcendentalist tradition of Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others.2 These authors were deeply concerned with questions of how the poetic life is connected to the natural life; how to live with what today we would call a small carbon footprint...


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