Rural Idyll

A View across Northern Hà Nội
A View across Northern Hà Nội
As urban sprawls go Hà Nội is not large, possibly some eight million people, giving it a village atmosphere compared to the Delhis, Tokyos and Mexico Cities of this world

The rise of the massive cities of the twentieth century seem justification enough for our wish to retreat to the countryside. As a growing percentage of the world’s population is confined ever more tightly within the often drab limits of urban areas–areas with little in the way of vegetation, reduced air quality, lack of light, and little personal space–so the more these vital human accompaniments are sought. However, the sense of being imprisoned, limited by the man-made social and built environment, is not new. The rural idyll seems as old as urban life

Modern methods of communication allow us to see clearly the problems of the shift to urban living, and offer constant reminders of extra-urban delights. These enticements are recorded back at the time of the teaching of the Buddha two and a half thousand years ago. And when, a couple of centuries later, Hinduism brought together its key ideas in the form of the Baghdad Gita, the advice was given to seek a peaceful country setting for one’s spiritual development; the book suggests that there is a pace of life which is lost in the rush of urban living. Again, a thousand years later, the difficult voyage from the British Islands to, a then uninhabited, Iceland was undertaken by monks seeking escape from the hurly-burly of our medieval west coast! Still today, those with the means, continue to seek the benefits that the country is seen to offer, be it by moving to the actual countryside, or, in the case of the ultra rich, creating miniature versions of their vision within an urban context.

This movement is universal. However, it is in the Far East that we see the pattern at its most developed. This is not surprising as, through the period we call medieval in Europe, China had a number of cities with more than a million inhabitants. The wish of the rich to live in a natural environment, while keeping their urban lifestyles, led “...ministers, viceroys, governors, and the like, [to dwell] in palatial mansions sprawling amidst beautifully landscaped gardens all set about with pools, grottoes, rare plants, ancient trees...” (Han Shan). So writes the Sinologist John Blofeld, who then continues by describing the life of the elite in 8th Century China, contrasting their privilege with the lives of those less affluent, but noting how throughout this period the latter did indeed find nature's comforts on foot and in the wild. Blofeld is here introducing the outstanding example of this movement at the time, the semi-mythical 'Han Shan' whose vivid ‘Cold Mountain’ poems still offer us a body of elegant poetry from a writer (or probably writers) previously part of, and then rejected by, urban life.

Han Shan writes "...accepting my fate I fled to the woods..." (Han Shan c.900) and certainly in these tumultuous times many writers and politicians were forced to flee urban centres, but the rich treasures they produced, expressing in the arts the delights they found in the natural world, are not only the works of banished people making the best of their lot. In many cases, as with the modern writer Blofeld and the subject of his esteem–Han Shan, such people were Daoist and saw urban life as distorting humanity; the remedy for this error was a return to nature and the resumption of a more traditional way of life; so they were positively drawn to nature, rather than only avoiding the troubles of the cities.

From these two strands, driven and attracted, came a dominant theme of Classical Chinese poetry–the Rural Idyll. This reaches its height in the T’ang Dynasty (618-906), at the probable time of Han Shan, with leading poets extolling the bucolic virtues.

My Cottage by Deep South Mountain

In my middle years I love the Tao and by Deep South Mountain I make my home. When happy I go alone into the mountains. Only I understand this joy. I walk until the water ends...

So wrote Wang Wei (Barnstone, 1991)

And here is Li Po (Hinton, 2008)

Mountain Dialogue

You ask why I’ve settled in these emerald mountains: I smile, mind of itself perfectly idle, and say nothing.

And Tu Fu (Seaton, 2006)

Village by the River

Clear stream meanders by this hamlet, flowing. Long summer days, at River Village, everything is ease. Coming, going, as they please, the pairs of swallows soaring.

This literary song of praise is paralleled in the tradition of Chinese landscape painting, although often highly stylised to our eyes, the homage is clear: the peace, sought for the heart, is found in nature. Landscape is presented as haven, offering secure places for temples and individuals. These works abound in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) but from as early as 900 Jing Hao’s landscape entitled 'Travelers in Snow-Covered Mountains' (Vanderstappen, 2014) still survives showing monasteries and people cradled in a stylised landscape - although in the internet image the figures and buildings are not too easily deciphered.

A final word on the Rural Idyll surely goes to the great Japanese poets of modern centuries, no longer Daoist, but often monks or lay Buddhists. Outstanding from this Edo period is Basho’s ‘Journey to the Interior’ (Hamill 1998) which is at once a journey into himself, and into a rural landscape. A journey that leaves behind the chaos of urban life (leaves behind our normal minds) and takes us to the tranquility of nature (to the way our minds can be, undistorted by social forces–social forces so often epitomised in the political intrigues of cities). The Rural Idyll now becomes a metaphor for enlightenment, and if that feels a step too mystical, it can at least remind us of a mental peace universally desired.

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  • Barnstone, Tony, Barnstone, Willis, and Xu, Haixin (1991, translation) 'Laughing Lost in Mountains: poems of Wang Wei'. University Press New England, New Hampshire.
  • Hamill, Sam (1998, translation) 'Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings' Boston, Shambhala. This is a beautiful English version–there are many others available of Matsuo Bashō (1694) 'The Narrow Road to the Interior'.
  • Hinton, David (2008, translation) 'Classical Chinese Poetry: an anthology'. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
  • Red Pine (2000, translation) 'The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain'. Copper Canyon Press, Washington State. This is a full version with notes of Han Shan (fl 9th Century) 'Cold Mountain Poems'
  • Seaton, J. P. (2006, translation) 'The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry'. Shambhala, Boston.
  • Vanderstappen, Harrie A. (2014) (Ed. Covey, Roger E.) 'The Landscape Paintings of China' University of Florida Press.

20th October 2014 ~ 29th September 2015