Hsieh Ling-yün

Hsieh Ling-yün (385-433), Duke of K'ang-lo, was a Chinese poet. An aristocrat of philosophic temper, he was China's first systematic nature poet to explore the mountains and gorges of South China and write poems about them.

Hsieh Ling-yün, whose ancestral home was Yanghsia (in presentday Honan Province), belonged to one of the most illustrious families who moved to South China with the Chin court when North China was invaded by barbarian tribes from across the Chinese border. Besides Hsieh Ling-yün, there were several poets of the Hsieh clan who achieved fame during the 4th and 5th centuries.

Upon his father's death, Ling-yün acquired his hereditary title as the Duke of K'ang-lo and would have seemed assured of a brilliant career at court; yet this persistently eluded him. Partly to blame were his aristocratic arrogance and his lavish style of maintaining himself. When the Eastern Chin collapsed in 419, he served the Liu Sung dynasty. He was, however, demoted to Marquis of K'ang-lo.

In 422 his enemies, jealous of his friendship with the heir to the throne, the prince of Lu-ling, exiled him to Yung-chia (in present-day Chekiang) and murdered the prince. It is from this period that Ling-yün matured as a poet. As prefect of Yung-chia, he recorded the scenic attractions around it with a fresh, observant eye; at the same time, suffering had deepened his outlook so that a philosophic vein now ran through his descriptive verse. For the next 10 years he alternated between intervals of seclusion on his estate and spells of discontented service as an official. Finally, he contracted the enmity of a powerful clique at court, was exiled to Canton, and was executed there on a trumped-up charge.

Brought up as a Taoist, Hsieh Ling-yün became in his youth a fervent convert to Buddhism. He once joined the intellectual community on Mt. Lu, under the famous monk Hui-yüan, and distinguished himself by his essays on Buddhist philosophy and his translation of several sutras. But his real contribution to Chinese literature lies in his nature poetry, which grew out of his love for the mountains and waters of Chekiang and Kiangsi. He wrote mainly in the five-word style, using a bookish and allusive vocabulary fashionable at his time. For this reason modern Chinese critics tend to belittle him by placing his achievement alongside that of his contemporary T'ao Ch'ien, a much greater poet. Nevertheless, with all his stylistic faults, Hsieh Ling-yün's passionate love for nature shines through his verse, and he remains the most important landscape poet of the pre-T'ang period.

Further Reading on Hsieh Ling-yün

For a sampling of Hsieh Ling-yün's poetry see J. D. Frodsham with the collaboration of Ch'eng Hsi, compilers, An Anthology of Chinese Verse: Han, Wei, Chin, and the Northern and Southern Dynasties (1967). The standard work is J. D. Frodsham, The Murmuring Stream: The Life and Works of the Chinese Nature Poet Hsieh Ling-yün (385-433), Duke of K'ang-lo (2 vols., 1967), which contains a full biography of the poet as well as copious translations of his verse.

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