Fun with Tang Dynasty Poetry: "River Snow"

Wen Sige

PureInsight | October 3, 2005


River Snow
By Liu Zongyuan

A thousand hills --- but no birds in flight,
Ten thousand paths --- with no person's tracks.
A lonely boat, an old man in a reed hat and a rain cloak,
Fishing alone in the cold river snow.

"River Snow" in Chinese



About Liu Zongyuan
Liu Zongyuan (柳宗元, 773 – 819 A.D.), also known as Liu Zihou, was a great poet and literary giant in the Tang Dynasty. Along with Han Yu (韓愈), he was a founder of the Classical Prose Movement (古文運動), which tried to revive poetry of the day by learning from classical masters and their nonpareil essays. He was traditionally revered as one of the Eight Great Prose Masters of the Tang and the Song Dynasties. He has an elegant yet powerful style. His poetry reflects his ethereal and unique style. His poem "River Snow" is a prime example of "minimum words; maximum message," and has been the subject of numerous landscape paintings. It is also an excellent work of art among Tang Dynasty poems.

The Author's Interpretation:
It is such an image-filled poem. In just twenty characters, Liu Zongyuan created a complete, ethereal landscape and a chilly, indescribable solitude. It was though the entire world is filled with snow and the entire universe is silent and clean. The chill is awe-inspiring. The image of an elderly man in rain cloak sitting alone in the snow fishing suggests the author's lofty character and his chilly solitude. It also suggests that the author is impervious to the external environment. Throughout the ages, readers have sympathized, admired and respected Liu Zongyuan for his superior character and will.

Liu Zongyuan's civil service career was initially successful, but in 805 A.D. he fell from Emperor Shunzong's favor because of his association with a failed reformist movement. He was exiled first to Yongzhou in Hunan Province and then to Liuzhou in Guangxi Province. However, the setback allowed his literary career to flourish. The exile tempered his will and morality. He eventually became a Buddhist cultivator. This poem is considered a portrait of his inner world in exile.

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