Tang Dynasty Poems: Visions of Paradise

Li Xiao Kui

PureInsight | September 16, 2002

Poems from the Tang dynasty offer glimpses into special moments during that magical period of time. They take the reader on a spiritual tour as well. To my surprise, I often catch a glimpse of heaven when I read the charming Tang poems.

Beautiful places and ideal realms are always yearned for. The Tang poets used their pens to capture the culture in a way that allows it to be passed down through time and space. The culture of the Tang dynasty preserves a heavenly message to be passed on to later generations. The message in the poems of the period reveals a desperate yearning for a faraway and boundless heaven, a desperate longing beyond description.

Heaven does not exist in our dimension and it cannot be seen by ordinary human beings. It is seen by a person’s Assistant Spirit, which is not in the Three Realms. The Assistant spirit comes from a very high dimension and it is felt by the Main Spirit in a particular situation or under certain conditions, such as in dreams or when the Main Spirit is unconscious. These visions and experiences are recorded in human language and thus become a part of human culture. Such visions are presented in the following four poems:

Endless Yearning (I)
I am endlessly yearning
To be in Changan,
Insects hum of autumn by the gold brim of the well
A thin frost glistens like little mirrors on my cold mat,
The high lantern flickers, and deeper grows my longing
I lift the shade and, with many a sigh, gaze upon the moon,
Single as a flower, centered from the clouds
Above, I see the blueness and deepness of the sky
Below, I see the greenness and the restlessness of water…
Heaven is high, Earth wide, bitter between them flies my sorrows
Can I dream through the gateway, over the mountain?
Endless longing
Breaks my heart.

–Li Bai

Endless Yearning (II)
The sun has set, and a mist is in the flowers
And the moon grows very white and people sad and sleepless,
A Zhao harp has just been laid mute on its phoenix holder
And a Shu lute begins to sound its mandarin-duck strings…
Since nobody can bear to you the burden of my song
Would that it might follow the spirit wind to Yanran Mountain,
I think of you far away, beyond the blue sky
And my eyes that once were sparkling, are now a well of tears,
Oh, if ever you should doubt this aching of my heart
Here in my bright mirror come back and look at me!

–Li Bai

Lily Magnolia
There is an end to the remotest corner of the earth, while
There is an endlessness to the yearning between lovers

– Yan Shu

Memories in Early Winter
…I remember my home, but the Xiang River’s curves
Are walled by the clouds of this southern country,
I go forward, I weep till my tears are spent
I see a sail in the far sky,
Where is the ferry? Will somebody tell me?
It’s growing rough, it’s growing dark.

–Meng Haoran

All of these poems express feelings of love and desire, but in such a way that they are not really for any female on Earth. Rather, they express the yearning and desire to return to heaven, the original home where all lives belong. This home is so far away and is missed so deeply that it is viewed as unattainable. The poets are longing after a dim memory.

The Tang poems are also a record of how human beings understand and remember heaven. The memory of heaven is eternally fixed in the minds and hearts of human beings, remaining intact through their myriads of reincarnations on Earth. Descendents are deeply touched upon reading the Tang poems, and through them can recall the beauty of heaven.

Under the yellow dust, and the three Mountains,
A thousand years passed like a gallop;
Watching the whole Earth and land
Seawater pouring from a cup.

–Li He

This poem describes the author’s visit to heaven in his dreams. He is traveling through the boundless space of the universe. From remote space, he overlooks the three mountains of Peng Lai, Fang Zhang, and Ying Zhou. Watching from a distance, the poet sees the human world become a micro image.

A Visit to Sky-Mother Mountain in a Dream
So, longing in my dreams for Wu and Yue
One night I flew over Mirror Lake under the moon,
The moon cast my shadow on the water
And traveled with me all the way to Shanxi,
The lodge of Lord Xie still remained
Where green waters swirled and the cry of apes was shrill,
Donning the shoes of Xie
I climbed the dark ladder of clouds,
Midway, I saw the sun rise from the sea
Heard the Cock of Heaven crow,
And my path twisted through a thousand crags
Enchanted by flowers I leaned against a rock
And suddenly all was dark,
Growls of bears and snarls of dragons echoed
Among the rocks and streams,
The deep forest appalled me, I shrank from the lowering cliffs,
Dark were the clouds, heavy with rain
Waters boiled into misty spray,
Lightening flashed, thunder roared
Peaks tottered, boulders crashed,
And the stone gate of a great cavern
Yawned open,
Below me, a bottomless void of blue
Sun and moon gleaming on terraces of silver and gold,
With rainbows for garments, and winds for horses
The lords of the clouds descended, a mighty host,
Phoenixes circled the chariots, tigers played zithers
As the immortals went by, rank upon rank.

–Li Bai

In this poem, the beautiful scenery of Paradise is visible to the author through rifts and crags in the clouds. Ascending, the author is able to gaze upon the lords of the clouds—rank upon rank of immortals.

A Ballad of Heaven
The River of Heaven wheels round at night
Drifting the circling stars,
At Silver Bank, the floating clouds
Mimic the murmur of water.
By the Palace of Jade the cassia blossoms
Have not yet fallen,
Fairy maidens gather their fragrance
For their dangling girdle-sachets.

The Princess from Ch’in rolls up her blinds,
Dawn at the north casement.
In front of the window, a planted kola nut
Dwarfs the blue phoenix.
The King’s son plays his pipes
Long as goose quills,
Summoning dragons to plough the mist
And plant Jade Grass.

Sashes of pink as clouds at dawn
Skirts of lotus-root silk,
They walk on Blue Island, gathering
Fresh orchids in spring.

She points to Hsi Ho in the east
Deftly urging his steeds,
While land begins to rise from the sea
And stone hills wear away.

–Li He

The heaven that the author describes in this poem is very attractive: cassia tree blossoming by the Palace of Jade, the Prince playing his pipes, fairy maidens gathering fresh orchids…. All portray the grace and beauty of heaven. The ancients found themselves in a wonderland of freedom and pleasure during their visits to heaven. The harmony and brightness, the happiness and pleasures of celestial beings, the peace and tranquility of the heavenly time-spaces, all are proof of the adage, “one day in Heaven above is equal to a thousand years on Earth.”

The south wind blows at the mountain
And makes it flat land,
Heaven’s Emperor orders the sea to move;
The Heavenly Mother’s peach blossoms a thousand times
How many times did Peng Zuwuxian die?

–Li He

Through the fairytale-like description presented in this poem, the author expresses his own understanding of Heaven and Earth after traveling through heavenly time-spaces. While the Heavenly Mother’s peach tree was blooming a thousand times, the ordinary human named Peng Zuwuxian, who was a long-lived human on Earth, had already lived and died over and over again many more times. It indicates that a human’s life is very short and cannot be mentioned in the same breath as eternal heavenly beings. This poem expresses the same sentiment as the following one:

Seven days passed for immortals in Heaven,
While many thousands of years been passed repetitively on Earth.

–Zhang Lianqui

Besides trying to understand immortality and longing for heaven, the people of the Tang Dynasty always strived to attain the Dao and achieve Consummation. People at that time were keen to pursue cultivation and break out of the Three Realms, as the following poems depict.

On the Way Back to the Old Residence
Traveling to Heaven in dreams
There is another space and dimension in the kettle
Overlook the human Earth,
That is easily withered and rotten.

–Li Bai

Ling Xu Mountain
Leaving the human world
Going toward the path to Heaven;
Upon Consummation through cultivation,
Then follow the clouds to Heaven,
Caves hidden under pine trees,
Deep and unseen among the peach blossoms;

–Li Bai

It is evident in the Tang dynasty poetry that to be a human being on Earth is not the sole purpose of life. Tang people understood that reaching the happiness of heaven through cultivation and Consummation is the goal to be achieved. This is the predominant message that Tang poems have passed down to us.

Translated from:

Selected Poems from the Tang Dynasty, 1999, Chinese Literature Press



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