This week's morsel comes from Where the World Does Not Follow. Gorgeous and unique, Where the World Does Not Follow captures an almost-hidden China. Acclaimed translator Mike O’Connor and photographer Steven Johnson uncover a world rarely seen by outsiders—even as they capture it in its everyday beauty. O’Connor’s translations of poems from China’s Tang Dynasty sing in the present day, while Johnson’s photographs reveal a modern-day China that seems almost unchanged by the passing of centuries.
The poem below is by Ch’i-Chi (864–937). Chi'-Chi was born in the Ch’ang-sha area of Hunan and has been ranked as one of the great Buddhist poets of the T’ang Dynasty along with Chiao-jan and Kuan-hsiu. Orphaned at an early age, he entered monastic life at a temple on Ta-kuei Mountain and, after ordination, became something of a wandering poet-monk. The style of his poems—bland and undramatic—is influenced by the poet Chia Tao. Later in life, he was given a position of authority in Lung-hsing Temple in Chingling. Of Ch’i-chi’s known collections of poetry, ten have survived (containing over eight hundred poems). This poem is “Tasting Tea.”
Evening smoke rises
from the stone dwelling;
at the window by the pines,
my host grinds an iron pestle.
Because I’m staying over,
I should try a cup;
after all, everyone says:
send monks tea.
The taste awakens
the poetry devil;*
the aroma haunts
and thunder on the river;
I well recall that walking trip,
all the green plants on the banks.
*The term poetry devil (shih-ma) is thought to have been coined by the poet Po Chu-i, who at times expressed concern that literary activity might interfere with one’s path to being a good Buddhist. In theTheravada branch of Buddhism, the precepts do forbid engagement in literary endeavors, and though no such precept exists in the Mahayana (the largest branch with which Chinese monks were affiliated), the Mahayana sects tended to follow theTheravada precept. With the flourishing of Zen and the rise of the poet-monks (shih-t’seng), such as ChiaTao, Kuang-hsuan, Chiao-jan, and Ch’i-chi in the Mid-T’ang Dynasty, the concern over the issue of the poetry devil subsided.
To read more of Where the World Does Not Follow, click here.