The Dream in One of the Most Recited Masterpieces Is Not Actually a Dream

Wang Yifeng

PureInsight | June 9, 2003


Tianmu Mountain Ascended In a Dream

Li Bai (The Tang Dynasty)

A seafaring visitor will talk about Japan,
Which waters and mists conceal beyond approach;
But Yueh people talk about Heavenly Mother Mountain,
Still seen through its varying deeps of cloud.
In a straight line to heaven, its summit enters heaven,
Tops the five Holy Peaks, and casts a shadow through China
With the hundred-mile length of the Heavenly Terrace Range,
Which, just at this point, begins turning southeast.
...My heart and my dreams are in Wu and Yueh
And they cross Mirror Lake all night in the moon.
And the moon lights my shadow
And me to Yan River --
With the hermitage of Xie still there
And the monkeys calling clearly over ripples of green water.
I wear his pegged boots
Up a ladder of blue cloud,
Sunny ocean half-way,
Holy cock-crow in space,
Myriad peaks and more valleys and nowhere a road.
Flowers lure me, rocks ease me. Day suddenly ends.
Bears, dragons, tempestuous on mountain and river,
Startle the forest and make the heights tremble.
Clouds darken with darkness of rain,
Streams pale with pallor of mist.
The Gods of Thunder and Lightning
Shatter the whole range.
The stone gate breaks asunder
Venting in the pit of heaven,
An impenetrable shadow.
...But now the sun and moon illumine a gold and silver terrace,
And, clad in rainbow garments, riding on the wind,
Come the queens of all the clouds, descending one by one,
With tigers for their lute-players and phoenixes for dancers.
Row upon row, like fields of hemp, range the fairy figures.
I move, my soul goes flying,
I wake with a long sigh,
My pillow and my matting
Are the lost clouds I was in.
...And this is the way it always is with human joy:
Ten thousand things run forever like water toward the east.
And so I take my leave of you, not knowing for how long.
...But let me, on my green slope, raise a white deer
And ride to you, great mountain, when I have need of you.
Oh, how can I gravely bow and scrape to men of high rank and men of high office
Who never will suffer being shown an honest-hearted face!

Li Bai is known as the Poet Immortal. The poem quoted above is among his most well known and most important masterpiece. It is a pearl in the crown of Chinese traditional poetry. Anyone interested in Li Bai's poems must read this one. For it is full of mysterious, wonderful scenes and exquisite images. The last sentence which is peerless and the most well known, "how can I gravely bow and scrape to men of high rank and men of high office who never will suffer being shown an honest-hearted face" has been recited for centuries. The poem will fascinate all those who read it - high-ranking officials, shopkeepers and pawns, celebrities and elites, all will be fascinated by this poem, which encourages one to become a real man, with dignity. Perhaps it will resonate among all people in the world. It hits the nail on the head and tells life's truths.

All literary scholars in Chinese history highly praised this poem. Since its title is "Travel in a Dream," most people think that "dreaming" is its theme. They believe that the poet tried to convey his ideas through an imaginary dream.

At the time that the poem was written, Li Bai had been exiled from Chang'an City (which was the capital of the Tang Dynasty at the time) by the emperor, because he had offended some nobles. People think that Li Bai made up a dream, and that through it he was trying to express his yearning for a life of freedom as well as his disdain toward filthy politics, power, and fame. They applaud his noble nature but feel sorry for him as well. Some people have made even more warped comments. In their eyes, this poem advocates the pursuit of freedom and individualism. Numerous discussions throughout history have centered on this poem's artistic style. The most popular opinion states that Li Bai employed an exaggerating romantic technique, which helps in creating a magnificent, blurry, and fictional world. To them, everything described in the poem was clearly a product of the poet's imagination.

Why are people so sure that the scenery described in the poem was purely fictional? Ordinary people's dreams are usually very fragmented. The recollections of their dreams are vague and colorless. The vast majority of people have never had dreams so real that they felt certain that they had entered into an incomparably noble world. Thus, most people believe that the poem is purely based on imagination, not real, and is a product of artistic refinement.

What makes this poem good is that the poet presented us with a plausible story. The emergence of a new world shocked the poet himself. The world he had experienced was so real and so delightful that the poet felt lost when he returned to the human world. He had realized the ultimate meaning of life. This experience was extraordinary because the poet actually entered into a world that was on a higher plane than ours, namely a different dimension. He collected and recalled what he saw and heard there, and put his feelings and comprehension into the poem.

The scenery he saw in his dream was not vague at all. The poet's words gradually painted a splendid wonderland. At the beginning, the poet wrote,

"A seafaring visitor will talk about Yingzhou, which waters and mists conceal beyond approach." Then he described his experience of entering that space at the moment, "my heart and my dreams are in Wu and Yue, and they cross the Mirror Lake all night in the moon," and he climbed "up a ladder of blue cloud." For those who've experienced their main consciousness leaving their bodies and venturing into other spaces, their typical feeling was as if they were flying through the sky. So from this it's not difficult to understand Li Bai's feelings. After these extremely beautiful scenes appeared before the poet, "myriad peaks and more valleys and nowhere a road. Flowers lure me, and rocks ease me. Day suddenly ends," the poet became fascinated, and more magnificent scenery emerged, "the Gods of Thunder and lightning shatter the whole range. The stone gate breaks asunder Venting in the pit of heaven. With terrifying thunder, the gate of heaven opened and the sun and the moon were shining." In the poet's eyes, "clad in rainbow garments, riding on the wind, row upon row, like fields of hemp, and range the fairy figures" represented a lively and exciting scene in the heavens!

But the dream suddenly stopped. "I move, my soul goes flying, I wake with a long sigh." After seeing the grandiose vision of angelic beings lining up in the heavens, the poet returned to the human realm with a deep sigh. So-called reality and so-called happiness are really like a dream. Everything in the human world is as fleeting as running water. The poet wished he could leave this illusory, worldly world and visit deities in the green mountains on a deer. He realized that the fundamental things of his eternal life were much more critical than the loss and gain in the human world, realizing that this was the real reason for his unhappiness.

This poem is so magnificent, clear, and fluent. It is not an expression of Li Bai's disappointments. On the contrary, it is the poet's spiritual sublimation after he had found the true meaning of life after glimpsing the real and grand world of immortals, a redemption waiting for him after he had given up mundane pursuits, and a release after he saw the truth.

The real meaning of life is to return to one's true nature, and to follow the Tao. Modern people can in no way understand this sublimation. Instead, they think it is a negative retreat from society. When people read the last two lines of the poem they are at the same time shocked and encouraged because their true nature was awakened, not because they are shouts of dissatisfaction.

Many poets in the past were cultivators themselves. They could therefore see other realms when they were in tranquility of meditation, or saw them in their dreams. Li Bai was a Taoist cultivator. A disappointment in the human world might have the opposite meaning at higher levels. When Li Bai decided to say goodbye to officialdom in which people fight over power and profit, higher beings in other dimensions who took care of him or had a predestined relationship with him might have demonstrated the real world of immortals before him.

"With tigers for their lute-players and phoenixes for dancers. Row upon row, like fields of hemp range the fairy figures." The scene was only a glimpse, but the poet enlightened to the truth right away. Because other dimensions are at loftier levels, their scenes are more beautiful and more substantial. This is one more fundamental reason why this poem was so striking. Similarly, in ancient times Chinese medicine utilized some techniques from other spaces and was therefore very potent. Many similar cases prevail throughout Chinese classic poems. For example, there is a verse by Song Qi saying, "spring is making noise on branches of a red apricot tree." Readers in later generations all praised the wording, "making noise." In fact, the poet selected "making noise" because he saw the real situation in other spaces and therefore included mention of it in his poem, enhancing the artistic conception of the poem. The poem "Tianmu Mountain Ascended in a Dream" is a representative work of this type of poetry.

Translated from:
Source of English translation of the poem:

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