Mysterious mountains

(Cue up Alan Hovhaness)

The search for universal themes in human psychology and culture tends to focus either on the most basic elements (sex, security) or the most abstract (hero-worship, fear of death). But I wonder if we wouldn’t do better to look at how humans relate to the landscape? Seeing how people of different times and places have related to forests or to mountains, for example, seems to reveal more similarities than differences. But even if this were not the case, the exercise strikes me as much more worthwhile than cross-cultural comparisons that focus on purely human realities. Hell, the latter approach probably does violence to most indigenous ways of understanding, according to which humans are far from the only sentient beings.

All this is simply by way of introducing a couple of translations from the classical Chinese. Poems celebrating cosmic mountains aren’t hard to find in the Chinese tradition. Both Li Bo and Du Fu – revered as the two greatest Chinese poets of all time – wrote poems in which mountains teach us how to see. In Du Fu’s poem, the first four lines of the second stanza of my translation (lines 5 and 6 in the original) have given scholars headaches for centuries. A totally unprecedented expression is, in the Chinese tradition, a very rare thing. Surely the poet couldn’t have meant what he wrote?

Gazing at Tai Shan
by Du Fu (712-770 CE)

This mountain of mountains – how
to put it in words?
Throughout Qi and Lu, a blue
that never fades. The Maker fills it
with power, unearthly beauty.
North face, south face divide
the dark from the dawn.

Heaving lungs
give birth to layered clouds,
straining eyes join the birds
returning to the peak.
Someday I swear I’ll climb
clear to the summit,
watch all other mountains
shrink into
a single
glance!

*

Jing Ting Mountain, Sitting Alone
by Li Bo (701-762)

Flocks of birds climb out of sight.

The single cloud journeys on alone.

Absorbed in each other’s gaze, never tiring,

now there’s nothing left but Jing Ting Mountain!

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