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For the interview with Tony in Winter 2000

For more of Tony's translations from the Chinese

Poetry selection from Readymades by Tony Barnstone in Fall 2001.

JIA DAO (778-841)


Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

Jia Dao was a Buddhist monk who gave up the monk's life in around 810 after meeting the poet Han Yu and moving to the capital, Changan. Along with other poets in this collection (Zhang Ji and Meng Jiao), Jia Dao was followed the esthetic principles advocated by Han Yu, which celebrated the didactic and moral effect of literature, and presented the poet as an honest Confucian rectifier of societal wrongs. With the encouragement of Han Yu, he tried many times to pass the imperial examination, but failed repeatedly. Although he was not a successful official, he gained a strong reputation as a poet. Here is a famous story about the first meeting of Jia Dao and Han Yu, from the compilation of poetic anecdotes titled Notes of Xiang Su:

When the monk Jia Dao came to Luoyang, monks were forbidden to leave the monastery after noon. Jia Dao wrote a sad poem about this and Han Yu liked the poem so much he helped him get permission to become a layman.

When he was concentrating on his poems he would often run into important people without being aware of it. One day, riding his donkey, he was thinking about these lines:
Birds return to their nests in trees by the pond.
A monk is knocking at a door by moonlight.
He couldn't decide whether to replace the word “knocking” with “pushing,” so he was making wild gestures on his donkey, acting out first a knock and then a push. While doing this he encountered the procession of the Mayor, Han Yu, and neglected to give way. Arrested by the bodyguards, and brought before Han Yu, he was asked to explain his actions. He explained how he was trying to decide between these two words. Han Yu considered this for a long time, and said, at last, “knocking”" is better. They became fast friends after that.

The great Song Dynasty poet and statesman Ouyang Xiu admired Jia Dao's intense evocations of hardship. Here is Ouyang's discussion: “Like Meng Jiao, Jia Dao was a poor poet until his death and liked to write lines reflecting his hard life....He writes:
I have white silk in my sideburns
but cannot use it to weave a warm shirt.
Even if one could weave hair, it wouldn't do him much good. Jia Dao also has a poem "Morning Hunger" with these lines:
I sit and hear the zither on the western bed:
two or three strings snapping in the cold.
People say that this poem shows that hunger as well as cold is unbearable.”


Looking for the Hermit and Not Finding Him

Beneath a pine I question a boy.
He says “Master has gone to gather herbs
somewhere on the mountain
but who knows where? The clouds are deep.”