Like Water or Clouds

Wang Wei (699-759 AD)

An Autumn Scene with Birds, Xu Daoning (10th–13th century)

‘An Autumn Scene with Birds’ - Xu Daoning (10th–13th century)

Authored and translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved.

This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.


Letter to P’ei Ti

This month the weather has been bright and clear, and I could have crossed the mountains. But I was reluctant to trouble you, knowing you were deep in the Classics. So I wandered around the mountain, stayed at Kan-p’ei Temple, ate with the monks, and wandered home again. Then I went north over the Yüan-pa, under a clear moon. At night I climbed Hua-tzu Hill, and watched the moonlight on the Yang River’s ripples. Far-off, lights on the cold mountain glittered then vanished. A dog in the deep lanes barked like a leopard. The pounding of grain in the night sounded between strokes of a distant bell. Now I am sitting alone listening to the silence. I think a lot about the old days, when we made poems together, climbing the steep tracks by clear streams. We must wait till the trees and grass grow green again, and, idling in spring hills, we can see fish leap in the light, the gulls soar, the white dew on green moss. At dawn we will hear the birds call in the fields. It is not long till then, when you could come wandering with me. If I did not know your natural sensibility, I would hold back from making even this indirect invitation. I speak from a deep impulse, but it is not pressing.

From Wang Wei, the mountain man

Green-Water Stream

To reach the Yellow-Flowered River

Go by the Green-Water Stream.

A thousand twists and turns of mountain

But the way there can’t be many miles.

The sound of water falling over rocks

And deep colour among pines.

Gently green floating water-plants.

Bright the mirrored reeds and rushes.

I am a lover of true quietness.   

Watching the flow of clear water

I dream of sitting on the uncarved rock

casting a line on the endless stream.

Note: The uncarved rock is the Tao. The endless stream is the Tao.

In Answer

In these quiet years growing calmer,

Lacking knowledge of the world’s affairs,

I stop worrying how things will turn out.

My quiet mind makes no subtle plans.

Returning to the woods I love

A pine-tree breeze rustles in my robes.

Mountain moonlight fills the lute’s bowl,

Shows up what learning I have left.

If you ask what makes us rich or poor

Hear the Fisherman’s voice float to shore.

Note: In the old tale the message of the Fisherman is that the Taoist must dip his feet in the muddy water (of the world) but should wash his hat-strings in the clear water (of the Tao).

Peach Blossom Spring

A fisherman floated on, enjoying Spring.

The shores, he found, were covered in Peach Blossom.

Watched reddening trees, uncertain where he was.

Seeing no one reached green water springs.

There a way led through the hill.

Twisting, turning to a vast plain.

Distant trees rose to the clouds.

Houses stretched among bamboo and flowers.

Woodmen had names from times of Chou,

Clothes they wore were those of Ch’in,

Once had lived near Wu-ling River,

Now they lived outside the world.

Bright moon in pines. By their doors peace.

Sunrise. From clouds the wild birds call.

Amazed, they want to see this stranger,

Invite him; ask questions of his country.

At first light they sweep flowers from the gate.

At dusk fishermen, woodmen ride the stream.

They had sought refuge there from the world,

Became Immortals, never returned.

Who in those hills can know the world of men,

Who, gazing out, sees only clouds and hills?

He forgot Paradise is hard to find.

His spirit turned again to his own home.

Leaving those hidden streams and mountains,

Thought he could return when he wished,

Knew the way. How could he go wrong?

Who can know how hills and valleys alter?

He only knew the deep ways he wandered.

How many green streams in those cloudy woods?

When Spring comes a myriad Peach-filled rivers,

Who knows which one might lead to Paradise?

For Mêng Hao-jan

Never to see that true friend again.

Han River gleams wide to the east.

I might ask where his island’s found.

River and hills. Empty is his place.

Note: Mêng was friend also to Li Po. See the note to Li’s  tribute.

A Reply

I have a place on the Chungnan slopes.

Sitting there you can see the Mountains.

No one there, no guests, the gate is closed.

No plans all day, just time and silence.

Nothing stops you gazing and dreaming.

Why not come and try to find me there?

Note: Wang Wei’s estate was at Lant’ien, in the Chungnan (South Mountain) foothills about thirty miles south east of the capital Ch’ang-an, and on the Wang River. This was a favourite location for country retreats.

Poem of Farewell

Morning rain on Wei’s city

Falls in the soft dust.

Green. The courtyard willows.

Green leaves. The newest.

But you must drink deeper.

Again, one more cup?

Out west where you go

What friendship there?

Mourning Yin Yao

We follow you home to the Mountain.

Back again through oak and green pine.

Beyond the White Clouds you stay forever.

Only this stream runs down to Humankind.

Words for the Mica Screen

Unfold this screen

Against the light,

Show hills and streams

Nature painted.


Middle-aged now, following the Way.

Settled at evening near the Chungnan slopes.

Delight, and I wander off by myself

Searching for what I need to see alone.

I climb up to the roots of the streams,

Sit and watch the White Clouds pass,

Meet the old man of the woods,

Talk and laugh, forget to go home.

Pa Pass

At daybreak I head for Pa Pass.

Spring and I together leave Ch’ang-an.

A woman washes clothes in bright water.

The birds at dawn sing in the light.

River country. Boats here are markets.

Mountain bridges cling to treetops.

Climbing up, a hundred villages.

In the far sun the Two Rivers.

People here speak another language,

But the birdsong’s just like my country’s.

Understanding the depths of landscape,

Even here I am never lonely.

Visiting the Temple

Not knowing where the temple was,

I travelled miles on hills of cloud,

Through ancient pines, no good tracks,

Towards bell sounds across deep gorges.

Stream’s noise where rocks are high.

Cool sun in fir branches.

Sit at night by the mountain pool,

Seeking to reign in the Dragon.

Going to the Temple

The Ten Stages of Perception

Up through bamboo. Leave the First Stage:

Pass Illusion: Go by Lotus Mountain:

Through the Pass, there’s the whole of Ch’u:

Beyond the woods see the distant plain:

Cross-legged on a mat of grass:

Hear scriptures in the high pine:

Reach the Void: through Clouds of Law:

Meditate to achieve Nirvana.


Thin cloud. Light rain.

Far cell. Closed to noon.

Sit. Look. Green moss

Becomes one with your clothes.

The Recluse

Every way the emerald trees’ shadows.

Each day’s green moss free of dust.

Wild-haired, stretch-legged, he sits

By the high pine with half-open eyes.

From the Mountain

Here there are others like me

Sitting alone in meditation.

Look out here from the city.

All you will see is White Clouds.

Night Hills

Rain gone. Hills are void.

Night air. Autumn now.

Bright moon in the pines.

Clear stream on the stones.

A bamboo noise – who heads home?

The lotus stirs – who sets out?

Spring scents always go.

But you – you must always stay.

Living by the River

Back again to this place of refuge.

No more entering the city.

Lean against a tree by the door,

Watch the distant villages below.

Green stems shining in the water,

White birds flying in the hills,

Thinking how that Man from Yüling

Gave up the world to refresh the garden.

Leaving Wang River

Finally decide to depart,

Sadly let go of ancient pines.

Who can see the last of Blue Hills?

Or bear to leave the Green-Water Stream?

Passing the Temple

Tonight he walks with his light stick,

Stops by the Tiger Stream’s source,

Asks us to listen to the mountain sound,

Goes home again by clear waters.

Endless blossoms in the stillness.

Bird-cries deep in the valleys.

Now he’ll sit in empty hills.

In pine-winds, feel the touch of autumn.

Hill Road

Ching River’s rocks show white.

Cold air. The sparse red leaves.

Clear of rain these sky-tracks,

Clothes soaked in the blue.

Note: Su Tung-p’o in the eleventh century commenting on a variant of Wang Wei's poem said ‘Read his poems closely and there are paintings in the words. Look at his paintings closely and there are poems in the paintings.’


September skies are clear to the distance

Clearer still so far from human kind.

A heron by the pool, a mountain cloud,

Either of them makes the mind content.

The faintest ripples still and evening’s here.

The moon turns silver and I dream,

Tonight leaning on a single oar,

Drifting without thought of going home.

Living in the Hills

Alone, at peace, I close the door.

Shut out the sky’s evening flame.

Cranes settle in the pines.

No one comes to try my gate.

Bamboo tender with new growth.

Red lotus shedding its old sleeves.

A light glows down by the ford.

Gathering water-chestnuts. They come home.

The Stone Ledge

On the stone ledge above the water,

Where willow leaf-tips drink the wine.

If you say the spring breeze has no meaning,

Why does it bring me all these falling flowers?

Three Songs For Lady Pan

Fireflies flash on mica screens.

No echo in Golden Halls.

Seen through gauze the autumn night

Where the lonely light shines.

Autumn grass on Palace yards.

The Emperor no longer cares to see.

How much pain in clear music.

They go past. The Golden Ones.

Court-ladies’ blinds are closed.

Courtyards empty. All are gone.

Now they are part of spring gardens,

Flowered voices in the sun.

Note: Pan Chieh-yü was concubine to Emperor Ch’êng of Han but was slandered and fell from favour. Her own poem of injury reads:

White silk new sliced

Pure as fallen snow,

Cut for a round fan

Bright as the full moon,

Goes always by his side,

Like the tender wind.

But when autumn comes

When cold chills fire,

It will be cast aside.

Love’s flame will end.

How Fine

I sweep the dust from ancient lines and read.

Wait for the moon. Take strings and play.

By Peach Blossom Spring no word of Han,

By Pines whose titles date from Ch’in.

The valley’s empty. Who comes home?

Blue evening hills grow cold.

How fine your refuge is,

Looking out to those White Clouds.

Note: The first Ch’in Emperor a thousand years earlier is said to have given titles to the pines which gave him shelter. Buddhism is also called the thousand-year-old pine.


Alone on the road to the border,

Beyond the soil won from the Hun.

I’m blown like thistle-seed out of Han.

Wild geese fly off to barren lands.

Out of the Gobi a puff of smoke.

In the long river a swollen sun.

Our patrol is on the High Pass.

Our camp is on Mount Yenjan.

Words spoken to P’ei Ti

How can we break out of the net,

Be free of all this sound and dust,

Swinging a thorn-branch, find the way

Back to Peach Blossom Spring?

Note: Charged with collaboration with the Rebels in occupied Ch’ang-an this is one of two poems said to have saved Wang’s life. Unable to write it down he recited it, during his internment, to his friend P’ei Ti.

For P’ei Ti

We’ve not seen each other

for a long time now.

Each day above the stream

I see us arm in arm.

Memory. Painful goodbyes.

If it feels like this now,

What did it feel like then?

From the Wang River Scroll

The Bamboo Grove

Sitting alone among dark bamboo,

Play: lift my voice, into deep trees.

Where am I? No one knows.

Only White Moon finds me here.

The Deer Enclosure

Meet no one on the empty mountain.

Hear only echoes of men’s voices.

Light falls through the deep wood,

Shines softly on the green moss.

Written on the Wang River Scroll

No urge now to write poems.

Old age is my companion.

In error they made me a poet in a past life.

Some lost existence had me as a painter.

Unable to get rid of ingrained habits,

The world has come to know me by them.

My name, my style, they may grasp, it’s true.

But my mind and heart they’ll never know.

Note: Wang Wei was poet and painter. On the scroll he depicted twenty favourite places, in and around his estate, in scenes and words.

White Hairs

Once a tiny child now an old man.

White hairs to match the soft down.

How the heart gets hurt by life.

Beyond the Gateless Gate’s

Where craving ends.

Authored and translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved.

This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.

Last Modified 8 February 2004