Wang Wei (8th-century poet)

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Wang Wei
Born 699
Qi County, Jinzhong, Shanxi
Died 759 (aged 59–60)
Xi'an, Shaanxi
Occupation Government Official, Poet, Painter
Period Tang Dynasty
Chinese: 王維
Pinyin: Wáng Wéi
Wade-Giles: Wang Wei
Middle Chinese (reconstructed): Iυαng Ui
Courtesy name (字, ): Mojie
Traditional Chinese: 摩詰
Simplified Chinese: 摩诘
Pinyin Chinese: Mójié
Nickname (外號/外号/wàihào): "Poet Buddha"
Traditional Chinese: 詩佛
Simplified Chinese: 诗佛
Pinyin Chinese: Shī Fó

Wang Wei (simplified Chinese: 王维; traditional Chinese: 王維; pinyin: Wáng Wéi; 699–759[1]) and also known by other names such as Wang Youcheng, was a Tang dynasty Chinese poet, musician, painter, and statesman. He was one of the most famous men of arts and letters of his time. Many of his poems are preserved, and twenty-nine were included in the highly influential 18th century anthology Three Hundred Tang Poems.


His family name was Wang, his given name Wei. The linguistic reconstruction of Wang Wei's name in Middle Chinese, according to Hugh M. Stimson, in terms of historical phonetics is "Iυαng Ui".[2] Wang chose the courtesy name Mojie, and would sign his works Wang Weimojie because Wei-mo-jie was a reference to Vimalakirti, the central figure of the Buddhist sutra by that name.[3] In this holy book of Buddhism, which is partly in the form of a debate with Mañjuśrī (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom), a lay person, Vimalakīrti, expounds the doctrine of Śūnyatā, or emptiness, to an assembly which includes arhats and bodhisattvas, and then culminates with the wordless teaching of silence.


Manjusri Debates Vimalakirti, in an image from the Dunhuang Mogao Caves

Wang Wei is especially known as a poet and painter of nature. Of his poems some four hundred survive: these were first collected and originally edited into a corpus by his next-youngest brother, Wang Jin, by imperial command. Of his paintings, no authenticated specimens survive, although there is evidence of his work through influences on later paintings and descriptive accounts of his paintings. His musical talents were regarded very highly, nothing survives of his music except reports. He was also known for his talent as a calligrapher. Wang Wei had a successful career as an official as well as achieving eminence as a poet and a painter. Eventually, he became a devout Zen Buddhist and a vegetarian.[4] Wang Wei spent ten years studying with Chán master Daoguang.

Early years

Traditional Chinese musical performances at Xi'an, perhaps more or less similar to the more decorous performances of Wang Wei's time, that would have performed for the enjoyment of the royal courts, in what was then Chang'an. A player on the pipa is shown on the viewer's left (stage right).
File:2008 Olympic Torch Relay in SF - Lion dance 15.JPG
An example of a modern version of the traditional lion dance (from the 2008 Olympic Torch Relay in SF). Apparently in Wang Wei's day, it was considered against court etiquette to perform in such a dance.

Born into an aristocratic family, of Han ethnicity, originally from Qixian (present-day Qi County in Shanxi province), Wang Wei's father moved east of the Yellow River to Puzhou, part of the historic Hedong Commandery (today's Yongji, Shanxi). Known for his youthful precocity,[5] Wang Wei, the eldest of five brothers,[6] set off for the imperial capital at the age of nineteen, in order to study and take the jinshi civil service entrance examination. In the period while residing in Chang'an, before taking the test, Wang's proficiency at poetry and his musical proficiency with the pipa helped him to achieve popularity at the royal court.[7] He passed the jinshi examination, in 721, with the first class award (Zhuangyuan), which started his potentially lucrative civil service career. Wang Wei's career as an official had its ups and downs. His first appointment was as a court musician, or "Deputy Master of Music"; however, he was then demoted to a position of being in charge of a granary in the former province of Jizhou (now the name of a different town Jizhou, in Hebei).[8] The reason for this demotion, according to tradition, was Wang's breach of etiquette by performing a lion dance.[9] In any case, this was only a minor setback to his career, and it had a compensation in that it did allow him to travel. Then, a series of promotions following this demotion was apparently attributable to a relationship with the prominent governmental minister, poet, and literary scholar Zhang Jiuling,[10] at least until Zhang's 727 demotion to a post in Jingzhou. By 728, Wang Wei was back in Chang'an, where he entertained the poet Meng Haoran,[11] who was to become a close friend and poetic colleague. At this point, Wang seems to have achieved the rank of Assistant Censor, and then a subsequent governmental promotion, but then later being demoted back to Assistant Censor, with the loss in imperial favor of Zhang Jiuling and the rising political ascendency of Li Linfu. After his wife's death in 731,[12] he never remarried. It was in his role as a government official that Wang Wei was dispatched to Liangzhou,[13] which was then the northwestern frontier of the Chinese empire, and the scene of constant military conflicts. By invitation of the local commander, Wang served in this location until returning to Chang'an in 738 or early 739.[14]

Middle years

After his return to Chang'an from Liangzhou, and lacking another official posting, Wang Wei took the opportunity to explore the countyside to the south of the capital, in the Lantian area of the Zhongnan Mountains. Wang Wei then made friends with Pei Di.[15] In 740-741 Wang resumed his successful governmental career, including an inspection tour of Xiangyang, Hubei (the home territory of Meng Haoran), and afterwards serving in various positions in Chang'an. Besides the official salary connected with this government work, he had received financial rewards as an artist; thus he was able to acquire a sizable estate in Lantian, formerly owned by the poet Song Zhiwen, known as Wang Chuan.[16] Upon his Lantian estate Wang Wei established a shrine to honor his Buddhist mother, and after his mother died, in 747-748, he spent the traditional three-year mourning period for the death of a parent in this location, apparently so afflicted by grief that he was reduced almost to a skeleton.[17] By 751-752 Wang Wei had resumed official duties. But at this point the historical record becomes problematic because of the effects of the An Shi disorders upon record keeping.


Riders on Horseback, Northern Qi Dynasty, the general area of the rebel heartland, although of an earlier date

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The events of the An-Shi rebellion, which took place between 755-763, profoundly affected Chinese social culture in general and Wang Wei in particular. In 756, Wang Wei was residing in the capital of Chang'an, where he was captured by the rebels when they took the city. Although the emperor Xuanzong and his court and most of the governmental officials had already evacuated to Sichuan, Wang Wei had come down with dysentery and at that time was an invalid and thus unable to travel,[18] especially not on this notoriously mountainous and difficult passage. The rebels then took their prize captive to their capital at Luoyang,[19] where the government of the rebellion sought his collaboration. According to some sources, he attempted to avoid actively serving the insurgents during the capital's occupation by pretending to be deaf; other sources state that, in an attempt to destroy his voice, he drank medicine that created cankers on his mouth. In any case, at Luoyang, Wang Wei was unable to avoid becoming officially one of the rebels, with an official title.[20] In 757, with the ascendency of Suzong, and the Tang recapture of Luoyang from the rebel forces, Wang Wei was arrested and imprisoned by the Tang government as a suspected traitor.[21] The charges of disloyalty were eventually dropped, partly because of the intervention of his brother, Wang Jin, who held high government rank (as Undersecretary of the Board of Punishments[22]) and whose loyal efforts in the defense of Taiyuan were well known. Furthermore, the poems he had written during his captivity were produced, and accepted as evidence in favor of his loyalty.[23] Following his pardon, Wang Wei spent much of his time in his Buddhist practice and activities.[24] Then, with the further suppression of the rebellion, he again received a government position, in 758,[25] at first in a lower position than prior to the rebellion, as a Taizi Zhongchong (太子中充), in the court of the crown prince rather than that of the emperor himself. In 759 Wang Wei was not only restored to his former position in the emperor's court, but he was eventually promoted. Over time, he was moved to the secretarial position of Jishizhong (给事中) and his last position, which he held until his death in 761, was Shangshu Youcheng (尚书右丞), or Deputy Prime Minister. As these positions were in the city of Chang'an, they were not too far from his private estate to prevent him from visiting and repairing it. During all this time, he continued his artistic endeavors.

Later years

File:Pinus tabuliformis Hua Shan5.jpg
A modern picture from Mount Hua, in the Qinling Mountain Range, perhaps suggesting some of the area's wild and rugged features which still exist today, and that would have also been enjoyed by Wang Wei and his friends.

Wang Wei never lived to see the empire return to peace, as the An-Shi disturbances and their aftermath continued beyond his lifetime. However, at least he could enjoy a relative return to stability compared to the initial years of the rebellion, especially when he had the opportunity to spend time in the relative seclusion of his Lantian estate, which allowed him both a poetic and a Buddhist retreat, as well as a place to spend time with his friends and with nature, painting and writing. But, finally, his writing came to an end, and in the seventh month of 759, or in 761, Wang Wei requested writing implements, wrote several letters to his brother and to his friends, and then died.[26] He was then buried at his Lantian estate.[27]


Wang Shimin: "After Wang Wei's 'Snow Over Rivers and Mountains'". Qing Dynasty.

Wang Wei was famous for both his poetry and his paintings, about which Su Shi coined a phrase: "The quality of Wang Wei’s poems can be summed as, the poems hold a painting within them. In observing his paintings you can see that, within the painting there is poetry." He is especially known for his compositions in the Mountains and Streams (Shanshui) poetry genre, the landscape school of poetry, along with Meng Haoran; their family names were combined in a form of mutual reference and they are commonly referred to as "Wang Meng" due to their excellence in poetic composition, as contemporaries. In his later years, Wang Wei lost interest in being a statesman and became more involved in Buddhism and his poems reflected his focus on Zen/Ch'an practice, therefore he was posthumously referred to as the “Poet Buddha”. His works are collected in Secretary General Wang's Anthology, which includes 400 poems. He excelled in painting images of people, bamboo forests and scenery of mountains and rivers. It is recorded that his landscape paintings have two different genres, one of the Father and Son of the Li Family (李氏父子) and the other being of strong brush strokes; his work of Picture of Wang River is of the latter, but unfortunately the original no longer exists. His works of Scenery of Snow and Creek and Jinan’s Fusheng Portrait are both realistic in their representation of the subjects.


Wang Wei was a "very great master" of the jueju:[28] many of his quatrains depict quiet scenes of water and mist, with few details and little human presence. The Indiana Companion comments that he affirms the world's beauty, while questioning its ultimate reality. It also draws a comparison between the deceptive simplicity of his works and the Chan path to enlightenment, which is built on careful preparation but is achieved without conscious effort.

One of Wang Wei's famous poems is "One-hearted" ("Xiang Si"):

When those red berries come in springtime,
Flushing on your southland branches,
Take home an armful, for my sake,
As a symbol of our love.

Wang River collaboration

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Some of Wang Wei's most famous poetry was done as a series of couplets written by him to which his friend Pei Di wrote replying couplets. Together, these form a group titled the Wang River Collection. Note that "Wang" as in the river is a different character that the "Wang" of Wang Wei's name. It literally refers to the outside part of a wheel; and also that these are sometimes referred to as the "Lantian poems", after the real name of Wang's estate's location, in what is now Lantian County. Inspired in part by Wang's Lantian home and features of its neighborhood and by their correspondences with other places and features, the collection includes such pieces as the poem often translated "Deer Park" (literally, "Deer Fence"). However, the poems tend to have a deceptive simplicity to them, while they actually have great depth and complexity upon closer examination.


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Wang Wei has historically been regarded as the founder of the Southern School of Chinese landscape art,[29] a school which was characterised by strong brushstrokes contrasted with light ink washes.

Cultural references

File:Dong Qichang.Landscapes in the Manner of Old Masters (Wang Wei). Album leaf.1621-24 Nelson-Atkuns Museum.jpg
Dong Qichang's painting of "Landscapes in the Manner of Old Masters" (Wang Wei). Album leaf. Nelson-Atkuns Museum

Influence in the East

Wang Wei was of extensive influence in China and its area of cultural influence, particularly in terms of monochrome ink painting and in terms of his deceptively simple and insightful Buddhist-influenced poetry. Wang Shimin and the other Six Masters of the early Qing period explicitly made some paintings after the style of Wang Wei, or specifically copying particular paintings of his. In the Ming Dynasty, Dong Qichang included Wang Wei's style in his paintings after the old masters.

One of Wang Wei's poems, called Weicheng Qu or "Song of the City of Wei" has been adapted to the famous music melody, Yangguan Sandie or "Three Refrains on the Yang Pass". The most famous version of this melody is that of the guqin, which Wang Wei probably played.

Wang Wei's lasting influence is seen in the death poem of the Japanese haiku master Yosa Buson:

  winter warbler;
  long ago in Wang Wei's
  hedge also

Influence in the West

  • Wang Wei's poetry, in translation, formed the inspiration for the final Der Abschied movement of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler's penultimate completed work, Das Lied von der Erde.

See also


  • Chang, H. C. (1977). Chinese Literature 2: Nature Poetry. (New York: Columbia University Press). ISBN 0-231-04288-4
  • Ch'en, Jerome and Michael Bullock (1960). Poems of Solitude. London: Abelard-Schuman. ISBN 978-0-85331-260-4
  • Davis, A. R. (Albert Richard), Editor and Introduction,(1970), The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse. (Baltimore: Penguin Books).
  • Ferguson, John C. (1927). Chinese Painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hinton, David (2008). Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-10536-7 / ISBN 978-0-374-10536-5.
  • Robinson, GW (1974). Wang Wei Poems Penguin Classics, ISBN 978-0140442960
  • Stimson, Hugh M. (1976). Fifty-five T'ang Poems. Far Eastern Publications: Yale University, New Haven, CN. ISBN 0-88710-026-0
  • Watson, Burton (1971). CHINESE LYRICISM: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-03464-4
  • Wu, John C. H. (1972). The Four Seasons of Tang Poetry. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle. ISBN 978-0-8048-0197-3


  1. bio dates: Ch'en and Bullock, 49 and 53; Stimson, 22; Watson, 10 and 170; and Wu, 225. Note, however, other sources, such as Chang, 58, and Davis, x, give his years as 701-761
  2. Stimson, 22
  3. Ferguson, 73
  4. Wu, 49-51
  5. Chang, 58
  6. Ch'en and Bullock, 49
  7. Ch'en and Bullock, 50
  8. Ch'en and Bullock, 50; Chang, 59
  9. Chang, 59
  10. Chen and Bullock, 50; Chang, 59
  11. Chang, 59
  12. Chang, 61
  13. Chang, 60
  14. Chang, 60
  15. Chang, 60
  16. Chang, 61
  17. Chang, 61
  18. Ch'en and Bullock, 50
  19. Ch'en and Bullock, 51
  20. Chang, 62
  21. Chang, 62
  22. Chang, 62
  23. Ch'en and Bullock, 51
  24. Chang, 62
  25. Chang, 62
  26. Ch'en and Bullock, 53
  27. Hinton, 158
  28. Davis, x
  29. Davis, x

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