Poetry: Chinese Religious Poetry

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To speak of religious poetry in the Chinese context is to beg several questions. First, in classical Chinese there is no exact equivalent to the word religion: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism are traditionally known as the Three Teachings (sanjiao ). Second, it is debatable whether Confucianism is a religion and whether ancestral worship is a kind of religious ritual. (The latter question was the subject of the so-called Rites Controversy among Catholic missionaries to China in the early eighteenth century.) Finally, although Daoist and Buddhist liturgies both contain verses, these are generally not considered worthy of description as poetry. With these reservations in mind, we may nonetheless survey what may be called religious poetry in Chinese.

The earliest anthology of Chinese poetry, the Shi jing (The Book of Songs), consisting of three hundred and five poems dating from about 1100 to about 600 bce, contains some hymns to royal ancestral spirits, eulogizing their virtues and praying for their blessing. These hymns are believed to have been sung to the accompaniment of dance. In these and some other poems in the anthology, references are made to a supreme supernatural being known sometimes as Di ("emperor") or Shangdi ("emperor above"), and at other times as Tian ("Heaven"). The first term, which is often translated as "God," appears to denote an earlier and more anthropomorphic concept than does Tian. For instance, in the poem Shengmin (The Birth of Our People), which recounts the myth of the miraculous birth of Hou Ji ("King Millet"), the reputed ancestor of the Zhou people, Hou Ji's mother, Jiang Yuan, is said to have conceived him after treading in the print of Di's big toe. By contrast, Heaven is generally depicted as a vague presence without specific physical attributes, sometimes wrathful but usually benevolent.

Some shamanistic songs from the kingdom of Chu, which flourished in the central Yangtze Valley from the seventh to the third century bce, are preserved in the next oldest anthology of Chinese poetry, the Chuci (Songs of Chu), compiled in the second century ce. These songs are dedicated to various deities, such as the Lord of the East (the sun god), the Lord of Clouds, and the Lord of the Yellow River. In these songs, the relationship between the male shaman and the goddess or between the female shaman and the god is described in terms of erotic love. The sex of the speaker is not always clear: we cannot always be sure whether it is a male shaman addressing a goddess or a female shaman addressing a god. The shaman may also speak in the voice of the deity. Traditionally, these and other poems in the Chuci are attributed to Qu Yuan (343?278 bce), said to have been a loyal courtier of Chu who was unjustly banished and who committed suicide by drowning himself in the Milo River. He is generally believed to be the author of the longest poem in the anthology, the Li-sao, whose title is usually translated as "Encountering Sorrow," although the term may simply mean "complaints." In this poem the speaker sets out upon a journey through the cosmos, in a carriage drawn by dragons and heralded by phoenixes, attended by the gods of the winds and of thunder. He also courts certain goddesses without success, and finally resolves to "follow Peng Xian," an ancient shaman. Chinese commentators have generally taken this to mean a resolution to commit suicide but the modern scholar David Hawkes interprets it as a desire to study the occult. Although it is difficult to be sure how far the mythological figures in the poem are intended to be taken literally and how far allegorically, the poem certainly derives some of its imagery from a shamanistic cult; it has even been suggested that Qu Yuan was a shaman.

During the Han dynasty (206 bce220 ce), the court's Bureau of Music (Yuefu) composed ritual hymns to be used at the sacrifices made to imperial ancestral spirits. Similar hymns existed in later dynasties. They usually show a stilted style and have no great poetic merit. It was during the Han period that Daoism evolved from its early philosophic origins into an organized religion. At this time too, Buddhism was first introduced into China, although it did not become popular at once. Following the Han period, Chinese poets were mostly either eclectic or syncretic, and might express Confucian, Daoist, or Buddhist views in different poems or even all of them in the same poem. However, in the works of some poets, the propensity to one of the three major ideologies is fairly pronounced. The following are some of the most famous examples.

Cao Zhi (192232 ce) wrote several poems about Daoist immortals, but it is difficult to say whether he really believed in them. The same may be said of Ruan Ji (210263), who in some of his poems expressed a wish for immortality but in others showed frank skepticism. Scholars disagree about the religious and philosophical beliefs of Tao Qian (365?427), whose withdrawal from officialdom was probably motivated by both Confucian ideals of integrity and Daoist wishes for simplicity and spontaneity. Although his poetry expresses both Confucian and Daoist views, his emphasis on following nature and his acceptance of death as a part of the eternal flux are more Daoist than Confucian. The landscape poetry of Xie Lingyun (385433) evinces both Buddhist and Daoist influences. To him, natural scenery is a manifestation of spirituality, yet the self-conscious philosophizing in his poems suggests an inability to transcend worldly concerns.

During the Tang dynasty (618907), the golden age of Chinese poetry, Daoism and Buddhism flourished, except during the reign of Emperor Wuzong (846859), who persecuted the Buddhists. Many Tang poets were influenced by Daoism or Buddhism or both, although none openly rejected Confucianism. By coincidence, the three greatest Tang poets, Wang Wei (699?761), Li Po (701762), and Tu Fu (712770), are considered to represent Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism respectively in their poetry, albeit not exclusively. Wang Wei, known as the Buddha of Poetry, wrote some explicitly Buddhist poems as well as others that embody a Buddhist vision of life without specific Buddhist references. In addition, he wrote court poems and social poems. His best poetry conveys a sense of tranquillity tinged with sadness as he quietly contemplates nature; the poems explicitly preaching Buddhism are less satisfactory as poetry. Li Po, the Immortal of Poetry, received a Daoist diploma and took "elixirs of life," which may have contributed to his death. Many of his poems express a yearning for the realm of the immortals and a wish to transcend this world, although they show him also to be far from indifferent to sensual pleasures such as wine, women, and song. Whether he succeeded in attaining Daoist transcendence or not, Li Po certainly found Daoist mythology a source of poetic inspiration and a stimulus to his exuberant imagination. Tu Fu, the Sage of Poetry, wrote mainly poetry with a Confucian outlook, although some of his poems refer to Daoist elixirs of life and others evince admiration for Buddhism. Perhaps, however, these are only signs of wishful thinking or polite expressions of respect for the beliefs of others.

Among late Tang poets, Han Yu (768824), the self-appointed champion of Confucianism, attacked Buddhism and Daoism, yet befriended some Buddhist monks. Bo Jui (772846) was strongly influenced by Buddhism and also experimented with Daoist alchemy. The calm and bland tone of his typical poems may result from Buddhist influence. Li Ho (791817) wrote much about spirits, ghosts, and shamans, but it is difficult to ascertain whether he believed in these literally or used them figuratively. Li Shang-yin (813?858) studied Daoism in his youth and was converted to Buddhism toward the end of his life. There are many allusions to Daoist mythology in his poetry, which is, however, seldom of a religious nature.

The best-known corpus of Chinese Buddhist poetry is that attributed to Han-shan ("cold mountain"), a legendary figure of whose historical existence we have little knowledge. Indeed, some scholars believe, on the basis of internal linguistic evidence, that the poems bearing Han-shan's name were by two or more hands and that they range in date from the late seventh to the ninth centuries. The best among these poems are quietly meditative with a touch of gentle melancholy, and the worst are short sermons in doggerel. Apart from Han-shan, some Chan masters wrote gāthā (a kind of hymn) in verse. These were intended as triggers to enlightenment, to be discarded as soon as enlightenment was attained, not as poetry to be read and cherished.

During the Song dynasty (9601279), considered second only to the Tang in poetic achievements, such major poets as Wang Anshi (10211086), Su Shi (10371101), and Huang Tingjian (10451105) all wrote poetry chiefly expressing Buddhist views. In subsequent periods, the literati continued to write poetry reflecting Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist attitudes, and Buddhist and Daoist priests continued to use verses in their respective rituals and sermons, even though such verses were not regarded as poetry. As for contemporary Chinese poetry, in the People's Republic of China there is hardly any poetry that can be called religious, whereas in Taiwan a few poets show Buddhist or Christian tendencies, but they are only a small minority.


Chen, Kenneth. The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton, 1973. Contains a chapter on Buddhist influence on Chinese poets, especially Bo Jui.

Hawkes, David, ed. and trans. Chuci, The Songs of the South (1959). Reprint, Boston, 1962. Complete translation of the anthology of chiefly shamanistic songs.

Karlgren, Bernhard, ed. and trans. The Book of Odes (1950). Reprint, Stockholm, 1974. Literal translation of the Shi jing. See the ritual hymns to ancestral spirits.

Waley, Arthur. The Poetry and Career of Li Po, 701762 A. D. New York, 1950. Contains discussions of Li Po's interest in Daoism.

Watson, Burton, trans. Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the Tang Poet Han-shan (1962). Reprint, New York, 1970. Selected poems attributed to the monk Han-shan.

Yu, Pauline. The Poetry of Wang Wei. Bloomington, Ind., 1980. Contains translations and discussions of Wang's Buddhist poems.

James J. Y. Liu (1987)