Choosing to Be Simple: Collected Poems Red Pine by Tao Yuanming is a translated collection of poetry that reflects on the progressive developments that have ensued during the Six Dynasties period from Wu to Chen. Yuanming takes the reader on a ruminative journey through these eras well over a millennium ago. The uncertain and ever influx nature of China during this period is one where those common citizens are forced to contend with war, corruption, agricultural developments and consistent political change. This collection centres a meditative approach, philosophical and often sorrowful approach to China’s march into modernity.

her fragrance like an orchid in the woods

she cherished the simplest of things

yet in her aspirations rivalled the clouds

she grieved when dawn turned to dusk (3)

The meditative nature of Yuanming’s words can be seen through the delicate movement of both the diction and narrative progression here. This extract also emphasizes a sense of commonality that spans generations. Namely, the transient nature of life and existence on a macro scale and, the common ‘toil’ of the great masses. Further, the latter is particularly intriguing as it shows a sense of historical human frustration and perhaps even disillusion with the nature of our lives.

“Instructing my Son” is a rather poignant piece within this collection as although it feels fantastical it also highlights a sense of familial preservation and the passing on of the history associated with Yuanming’s lineage. This may sound mundane, but the ability to pass on history, culture and folklore is something anthropologically and sociologically essential to the maintenance of the human population and its reproduction. Along this line of thinking, we can see how even over 1600 years ago, humanity still pondered many of the same ideas within the family unit.


since ancient times we appear then vanish

the thought of this burned me inside

in order to relieve such feelings

I drank some wine and felt happy

I don’t know about a thousand years

just let me prolong this day (113)

The reader finds gentle solace in the passage of time and the transitions that shape both reality and the state of Yuanming’s mental state. Seemingly, the latter swings between the beauty and morose nature of natural variations that shape Yuanming’s questioning. It must be noted that Yuanming’s poetry embeds much of the associated sentiment attached to the natural world and lived reality, whether mundane or otherwise. This shapes the reader’s understanding of the authorial intent present. In addition, this intent is characterized by a rugged, genuine honesty that asks the reader to find mirth in the simple whilst encouraging the reader to find and live their own truth, their own lived reality where doubts melt away and life becomes less scary and more embraced.

Yuanming’s philosophical wandering through the natural and constructed world leads the reader to believe that Yuanming was just as concentrated on understanding his own life and existence as he was fixated on the epistemological and philosophical. Despite a gentle questioning, I believe that Yuanming’s words speak to the complex psyche that exists within each and every one of us. This complexity of imagination is not time specific and only allows the reader to empathize further as this collection unfolds.

The ways of Heaven are hidden and remote

the doings of ghosts and spirits obscure

even as a child I thought about what was right

I’ve kept at it fifty-four years

when I came of age I encountered hard times

when I set up my household my partner died (189)

Whilst Yuanming laments and posits new questions to the reader, this collection takes the reader on an ever-deeper journey of introspection. Despite its age, this collection is an essential read for those that seek to find their own truth, their own place in this warped and ever-changing cosmos and indeed, Earth. For the philosophically inclined, this collection will be a particularly satiating treat! I am privileged to have been able to review this thought-provoking collection and urge you to read this ancient, yet ever relevant words.



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