We are now a few weeks into the Chinese New Year (a year of the Tiger, elementally specified as metal, metaphysically specified as yang), and this seems a fairly auspicious time to pay tribute to one of my favorite of Chinese culture’s immortals: the great poet T’ao Ch’ien (A.D. 365–427), also known by his birth name, T’ao Yüanming. Revered as the father of the high tradition of Chinese poetry, T’ao is also regarded as something of a great sage and has been claimed, at various times, by Confucian, Taoist, and Ch’an (Zen) tradition (the last even though he was not a Buddhist). Popular legend occasionally names him as one of the figures in the iconic image of the Three Laughing Sages (sometimes as the Confucian, sometimes as the Taoist), and some scholars of Chinese Buddhism accord him an absolutely seminal importance in the evolution of the peculiar sensibility of Zen. All of this, I suspect, he would have thought rather silly.
T’ao was not a prolific writer. He left behind only a small collection of verse, a few short essays, and a single letter, written to his son. In his own day his poetry was scarcely noticed. But the great efflorescence of Chinese poetic culture during the Tang and Sung dynasties sprang, in large part, from the rediscovery of T’ao, both as a poet and as an ideal. The greatest writers of China’s poetic golden age regarded him as the absolute virtuoso of “the natural voice,” almost magically able to combine the subtle and the simple in verse that was most lyrical precisely where it appeared least adorned. “On the outside,” remarked the great Sung poet Su Shi (Su Tung-p’o), “it is withered, but on the inside abundant. It seems plain, and yet is truly beautiful.” It was T’ao, more perhaps than anyone else, who bequeathed to classical Chinese literature its most central aesthetic values: its immediacy, its limpidity, and its veneration of nature.
All of this is cause enough to celebrate the man. My own reason for calling attention to T’ao just at the moment, however, is my firm conviction that he may have been, quite simply, one of the sanest human beings who ever lived.
I want to be clear here. Sanity is not sanctity (indeed, the latter often requires the forfeit of the former), and T’ao was neither a saint nor a mystic; his wisdom, which was deep, was nevertheless of a thoroughly earthly and ordinary variety. He scrupulously avoided, in fact, the only path of spiritual liberation on offer in his day. Hui Yüan, the Buddhist abbot of Lu Mountain, was so anxious to win T’ao over that he even allowed wine (the poet’s one notorious weakness) to be served on monastery grounds. But while T’ao was happy to drain his cup when visiting the monks, he still declined to embrace the dharma. He was temperamentally averse to asceticism and inflexible regimens, and he valued the joys of family and household far above the prospect of a salvation so laboriously won.
Which is very much to my point. The essence of mental and spiritual health is, after all, to care deeply about a very few, particularly precious, and intimately familiar things, and to regard the rest of reality with generous indifference. Of course, if everyone were sane in this sense, nothing ever would get done—and that would, I suppose, be a bad thing. We seem to have some need, for instance, for politicians, at least under our current system. Considered rationally, however, only a person who is somewhat deranged could ever possibly care enough about politics to want to participate in its processes. Anyone able to read a piece of legislation with interest is already a tad demented, and anyone willing to write a piece of legislation clearly suffers from a minor obsessive psychosis. So God bless them, but God spare us their derangement.
T’ao was entirely devoid of whatever spiritual malady or degeneracy of the soul it is that makes certain persons ambitious for political office. He assumed the cognomen Ch’ien—“Recluse”—in middle age precisely to give notice that he would never resume any of the official responsibilities or titles that occasionally had been thrust on him as a younger man, both by the accidents of his birth and by the exigencies of poverty. Although he was born of a distinguished family of classically educated Confucian scholars and trained to serve in the administrative class of the Middle Kingdom, he preferred farming. For many years, however, he could not make his farm solvent.
At the age of twenty-nine, he reluctantly took up a post in his local provincial government, near Hsün-yang, but bureaucracy and the intolerably deferential protocols of office soon drove him back to his farm. Financial necessity forced him once more into public service from 395 to 400, but he fled homeward again in 401 and managed for a while to wring a bearable subsistence from the soil. In 405, however, when an injury made the exertions of farming too difficult, friends prevailed on him to return to public service. He accepted the position of government magistrate in P’eng-tse.
T’ao held this, his last government post, for a tenure of only eighty days. Soon after taking up his seal of office, he dictated that all the government fields in his jurisdiction be planted exclusively with glutinous rice used for making wine (though his wife soon convinced him to plant a sixth of the fields with a comestible variety instead). Otherwise, he discharged his responsibilities conscientiously, but not avidly, and he still could not bend his nature to official ceremony. When, one day, his assistant informed him he would have to fasten up his girdle to pay his respects to a visiting government inspector, T’ao groaned and remarked that he would not bow and scrape to some oaf just to earn a few bushels of rice. That same day, he resigned.
Thereafter, for more than twenty years, T’ao politely refused every entreaty to return to public life and devoted himself only to what he loved: farming, poetry (which, he said, he wrote only for his own amusement), the perennial cycles of the natural world, the transitory music of familial affection, and wine. Everything else he did his best to ignore. He chose obscurity over preeminence, poverty over wealth, and family over society. He was, the records report, almost boundlessly contented. In those years, although he was not a sociable man, there was no one whose society was more eagerly sought. One of his friends, just for the pleasure of his company, once even laid a “honeyed” trap for him—a table decked with cups and a flagon of wine, set up along a path where T’ao often walked. The friend knew that this was the only thing that could detain the poet for more than a few moments.
The virtue that T’ao ultimately refined to utmost perfection was hsien, “idleness.” Not “laziness” (farming, after all, is no occupation for the indolent), but rather a condition of deep peacefulness and interior quietude. Hsien is not exactly detachment, since it flows most properly from genuine attachment to the right things, nor is it any kind of spiritual austerity. It is simply an inability to be agitated by trifles or distracted by irrational appetites, and the sublime capacity for total contentment in doing nothing when nothing is what needs to be done.
Around this still center within himself, this abiding hsien, T’ao cultivated a character that was gentle but never mawkish or servile, humorous but never cruel, proud but never arrogant or pompous, and sensualist but never depraved or avaricious. He made room for his appetites (which were moderate) without being enslaved by them. He could certainly drink too much now and then, but he usually drank only enough to bedizen the world with an amiable glow. And he was blessed with a deep and sympathetic kindness. His one surviving letter rather touchingly enjoins his son to be kind to a peasant boy who works on the farm, “for he too is someone’s son.”
In any event, for all that he craved rustic obscurity, T’ao ultimately became one of the indispensable pillars supporting the “gold and jade palace” of Chinese cultural identity. Indeed, but for his want of worldly ambition, this would not have happened. He died largely impoverished but left behind a joyful and inextirpable cultural memory, a particularly delightful pattern of the ideal man, and a small body of perfectly accomplished art. And he was able to do all this because—again—he was so imperturbably and incorrigibly sane.
David B. Hart is author of The Beauty of the Infinite and Atheist Delusions.