“The Immortals by the River” (楊慎 臨江仙)
120 X 47cm in Standard Script (楷書), Semi-cursive Script (行書), and Cursive Script (草書)
This famous poem was written originally by Yang Shen
(楊慎, 1488–1559) of the Ming Dynasty as the lyrics to the song "The Immortals by the River (臨江仙)
". It is often known as the opening poem of Luo Guanzhong
's (羅貫中, 1330－1400) famous novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms
" (三國演義), and so many mistakenly believe that it was composed by Luo. Research, however, indicates it was probably Mao Zonggang
(毛宗崗, 1632-1709) of the early Qing Dynasty who added this poem as an opening verse to Luo's novel (1
The work presented here was written in an unorthodox calligraphic approach wherein a mixture of different script styles was written within the same work to mimic the style observed in Yan Zhenqing's (顏真卿) masterpiece, A Poem of General Pei
). Note also that the two small horizontal line ("=") below the "滾" character represents a character that is identical to the one written before in cursive script calligraphy; hence "滾=" represents "滾滾".
"The gushing waters of the Yangzi River pour and disappear into the East, washing away past heroes: their triumphs and failures, all vanish into nothingness in an instant. Yet, the green hills still stood as before, along with the perpetual rosy sunset. (滾滾長江東逝水，浪花淘盡英雄。是非成敗轉頭空。青山依舊在，幾度夕陽紅。)
A gray-haired man fishes and splits firewood in a small island, accustomed to observing the autumn moons and feeling the spring winds. (In this context, it means that this sophisticated elderly man has seen through the cyclic ups-and-downs) (白髮漁樵江渚上，慣看秋月春風。)
A good old friend drops by happily with a bottle of crude wine; all tales, old and new, shall then be told and shared together in laughter! (一壺濁酒喜相逢。古今多少事，都付笑談中!) "
(translated by KS Vincent Poon, Oct . 2015)
I. On "Immortals" and "Nothingness (空)"
The "Immortals" here are certainly the green hills, the perpetual sunset and, to a certain degree, the laughter. You are not immortal: no matter how successful you are, your achievements will vanish into "nothingness (
空)" since you cannot carry any of that with you after you pass away. Even worse is the possibility that you will be forgotten as well. Indeed, this is similar to "Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity" written in the Bible (Ecclesiastes 1:2) wherein it suggests that worldly goods, successes and
accomplishments are all but illusions.
Note that the "nothingness (空)" in the poem carries a significantly different meaning than non-existence; it should be interpreted as "non-concrete existence (非實有)", wherein all worldly matters should be considered as fleeting and cannot be grasp as constant and eternal entities, a concept borrowed from Buddhist philosophy.
II. On the Poem's Cultural Significance
The concept of considering worldly matters as "nothingness (空)" is very common in classical Chinese literature dating many years before this poem was written. For instance, Tang's dynasty's poet Bai Juyi (唐 白居易, 772-846) once wrote, "a hundred year casually passes by, ultimately you realize everything turns into nothingness." (「百年隨手過，萬事轉頭空。」) Song Dynasty's Su Shi (宋 蘇軾, 1037-1101) went even further: "it's not even valid to mention "everything turns into nothingness" as that very "everything" was originally an illusionary dream in the first place." (「休言萬事轉頭空，未轉頭時是夢。」)(4)
. Even today, many Chinese intellectuals find the concept of "nothingness" attractive as it allows any individual to "let things go" (放下) easier in depressing and unjust situations.
Why is this rather sad and negative attitude towards life so prevalent among Chinese intellectuals? Perhaps one probable reason is the long history of chronic maltreatment of dissident intellectuals all the way back from ancient China to today's modern Communist China; those who bear opposing views against authority are often arrested, sometimes executed, and frequently have their immediate family members involved in the punishment process. Therefore, most dissidents choose to remain silent to avoid these harsh consequences imposed by the establishment, and use the "nothingness" concept to ease their minds and conscience -- after all, everything turns into "nothingness", what's the point of speaking up? This is, of course, contrary to traditional Confucianism (see Personal Comments in Comments on the Chronicle of Ni Kuan
), but to survive comfortably one must be prepared to have such a mentality. Hence, it is not surprising to see many brilliant scholars in Chinese history eventually became "hermits" (隱士) to isolate themselves from society (and trouble) later on in life. Indeed, this may be able to help explain why Chinese people are less vocal in politics and spend less time advocating for themselves than people from other cultures.
There is, however, a more positive approach to applying the concept of "nothingness (空)": since every worldly matter turns into "nothingness" anyways and so there is really nothing to lose materially, why not always do the right thing and advocate justice for yourself and other people, especially for the weak? As mentioned previously in my other work, poet Li Qingzhao (李清照) once wrote, "Live like an audacious champion; die as a heroic soul ("生當作人傑，死亦為鬼雄"); one should ideally cast aside all worldly considerations and consider only your conscience when making any decision or action. This is in parallel with the biblical concept that everything on Earth is fleeting and merely an illusion with only God's way as eternal (5). To put it more bluntly: if it is the right thing to do, do it; don't worry about whether you will succeed or fail, gain or lose, be rewarded or be punished. Ultimately, it is your deeds and actions that will be remembered and celebrated, not any of your possession including your lifespan (as this poem also suggests at the very end). Such is the better way of applying the
"nothingness (空)" to life: to recognize the emptiness and trivialness of worldly matters and put your conscience as the top priority when dealing with all things.