Wang Wei

Wang Wei

Wang Wei, 699-759, Chinese poet. He was an extremely versatile man, being a musician and painter as well as a poet. He wrote quatrains almost exclusively; these verses portray quiet scenes like those depicted in the few surviving paintings attributed to him. Wang Wei's delicate landscapes, famed for their depiction of water and mist, were drawn in black ink. He is considered the first master of atmosphere and the founder of Southern Chinese landscape art. After many years of service at court, he is thought to have retired to a Buddhist monastery after the death of his wife. His poems were translated (1959) by Chang Yin-nan and L. C. Walmsley.

Wang Wei (701–761), sometimes titled the Poet Buddha, was a Tang Dynasty Chinese poet, musician, painter and statesman.

From a high family, he passed the civil service entrance examination in 721 and had a successful civil service career, rising to become Chancellor in 758. During the An Lushan Rebellion he avoided actively serving the insurgents during the capital's occupation by pretending to be deaf.

He spent ten years studying with Chán master Daoguang. After his wife's death in 730, he did not remarry and established a monastery on part of his estate.

He is best known for his quatrains depicting quiet scenes of water and mist, with few details and little human presence. The Indiana Companion comments that he affirms the world's beauty, while questioning its ultimate reality. It also draws a comparison between the deceptive simplicity of his works and the Chan path to enlightenment, which is built on careful preparation but is achieved without conscious effort.

None of his original paintings survive, but copies of works attributed to him are also landscapes with similar qualities. He influenced what became known as the Southern school of Chinese landscape art, which was characterised by strong brushstrokes contrasted with light ink washes.

Wang Wei's most famous poetry, such as the poem "Deer Park," form a group titled Wang River Collection. They record a poet's journey, ostensibly that of Wang Wei and his close friend, Pei Di. They are far more universal than a simple journey and have inspired generations of poets since, including recent adaptations such as Pain Not Bread's Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei (ISBN 1-894078-09-8), Barry Gifford's Replies to Wang Wei (ISBN 0-88739-441-8) and Gary Blankenship's A River Transformed (ISBN 1-4116-6227-X).

Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz's 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (ISBN 0-918825-14-8) is an essay concerning more than 19 translations of Wang Wei's "Deer Park."

One of Wang Wei's poems, called Weicheng Qu or "Song of the City of Wei" has been adapted to the famous music melody, Yangguan Sandie or "Three Refrains on the Yang Pass". The most famous version of this melody is that of the guqin, which Wang Wei probably played.

Wang-Wei's poetry, in translation, formed the inspiration for the final Der Abschied movement of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler's penultimate completed work, Das Lied von der Erde.

Poetry sample

《竹里館》 "Hut in the Bamboos"

"Sitting alone, in the hush of the bamboo;
I thrum my zither, and whistle lingering notes.

In the secrecy of the wood, no one can hear;
Only the clear moon, comes to shine on me."


  • Wang Wei:Poems, translated with an introduction by G W Robinson.Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1973
  • The Poetry of Wang Wei,New translations and Commentary, Pauline Yu. Indiana University Press 1980-extensive comments ,with Chinese texts.
  • Nienhauser, William H (ed.). The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature. Indiana University Press 1986. ISBN 0-253-32983-3

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