Poetic Reflections on Sustainability at the Peak of the Tang Empire

By Ning Yu.

Published by The Sustainability Collection

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During the first half of the eighth century, about a hundred years after the Mayan Golden
Age (300-600), a hundred and eighty years before Basil I began to expand the Byzantine Empire, and
as Charles Martel, “The Hammer,” stopped the expansion of the Muslim Arab Empire in France, the
Tang Empire in central China rose to its apogee to include what is now Inner-Mongolia in the north, Vietnam
in the south, the coast in the east and Tajikistan in the west. As one of the two super powers of the time,
the Tang Empire became ambitious in territorial expansion, confident in diplomacy, active in international
trade, innovative in technology, and creative in artistic expression. The poetry of this “High
Tang” period has always been celebrated as free and original, reflecting the bursting vitality of the
prosperous empire (Du Xiaoqin, Sui Tang Wudai Wenxue Yanjiu, Beijing, Beijing Publishing Company,
2001, p. 288). Yet, as I reviewed ten thousand and translated two hundred poems from this “High
Tang” period, I noticed in the diverse subject matters of the High Tang Poetry a ubiquitous concern
about the sustainability of the empire and the non-human environment that had made any human society
sustainable in the first place. With the rise of the Tang Empire, poets sensed the polarization between
the rich and the poor, the powerful and the downtrodden, the successful and the unfortunate. They
read far back into a thousand years of Chinese history, and the classics that had accumulated during
that long history, in search of practicable life styles that would offer an alternative to the imperial
value of domination that they had reason to believe to be unsustainable. Some of these poets were high
officials in the imperial court, such as Wang Wei and his younger brother Wang Jin; some had never
entered the court, such as Meng Haoran; some tried hard yet were unable to receive or maintain an
official position in the court, such as Li Bai (Li Po); and some after painstaking efforts got only a petty
office in the remote south somewhere in what is now Vietnam, such as Du Shenyan, and some, such as
Han Shan, never bothered their mind with the thought of court but found a home in his alter ego, the cold mountains in Zhejiang Province. Disappointed by the imperial court for various reasons, they found their
alternative ways of life in the countryside, in wild mountains, in voluntary or involuntary poverty. The
common denominator for these poets is the advocacy for living small. A materialistically moderate
yet culturally rich and satisfying life style is the ideal they share. In this paper, I’ll review the reflections
on and practice of sustainability by the poets of the “High Tang” period, their responses to the rise
and fall of the empire and to the environmental disasters the empire builders had caused. The poetic
imagination of the Tang Empire twelve centuries ago may shed some light to our own time. Is living
small necessarily irrelevant in the time of big, global economy? Isn’t the love of the cold mountain
more understandable in the age of global warming, a problem shared by the pre-industrial and post
industrial countries alike?

Keywords: Tang Poetry, Sustainability, Minimalistic Aesthetics

The International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, Volume 7, Issue 6, pp.65-80. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.101MB).

Prof. Ning Yu

Associate Professor, Department of English, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington, USA

I received my Ph.D. in English from the University of Connecticut in 1993 and have been teaching American Literature to graduate and undergraudate students at Western Washington University. As my Ph.D. dissertation was on Henry David Thoreau’s geographical imagination, my interest in literature became an increasingly interdisciplinary pursuit. In 1997, I participated in the N.E.H. (National Endowment for the Humanities) Summer Seminar on environmental imagination hosted by Vassar College, New York, where I joined twenty-five leading scholars in the burgeoning field of environmental literature and eco-criticism. I’ve published several articles on Henry David Thoreau and other major American authors. In 2009, I participated in the international conference on ecopoetics held in Brussels and delivered the paper, “A Poetics of a Secretary of Nature: Ezra Pound’s Etymological Reading of Chinese Characters as a Poetic Site for the Reunification of Culture and Nature.” The paper was later published in a refereed international journal: The Journal of Comparative American Studies. I just finished translating four hundred poems from the Tang Dynasty and am writing translator’s notes to each of the poets selected. My translation is based on a careful review of over fifty thousand poems from the Tang Dynasty and a selection of four hundred poems that focus on the concerns of sustainability and the non-human environment.

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