Disturbances of Peace.
Reading such poems, it is easy to forget that their audience was precisely the well-connected literati who staffed the imperial bureaucracy, and that each of these poets eagerly pursued an official career. Even a poet such as Meng Hao-Jan--who, Hinton writes, "never left his native region to follow a government career," but "cultivated the independence of a simple life in his home mountains"--knows that he is writing for the capital: one of his poems is titled "Sent to Ch'ao, the Palace Reviser," and contrasts the bureaucrat's "rue- scented libraries" with his own "bamboo-leaf gardens." Wang Wei came from a prominent family and rose to a high position in the bureaucracy. For Hinton, however, this is essentially irrelevant to his poetry: "Wang enjoyed a long and successful career in the government ... but it is clear that he found his truest self in mountain solitude." Likewise, Wei Ying-Wu, who "never left government service completely," was still "by nature a recluse." All this is entirely in keeping with Hinton's view of Chinese poets as teachers of Taoist-Buddhist wisdom.
But there is another way to look at these poets. It is possible to see them as worldly and sophisticated men who--like Horace, or like the Elizabethan court poets--found it creditable to praise rusticity, without intending to practice it unless bad luck and old age compelled them to do so. (If it is a sort of Stoicism that these poets seem to espouse, it is worth remembering that the great Stoics of Rome, Seneca and Cicero, spent their lives in the corridors of power.) As Stephen Owen notes, "Most High T'ang poets either served the state or wished to do so: the disdain for high office expressed by many famous poets was sporadic, and rarely accompanied by the conviction of action when an attractive opportunity for service was offered." This is not a question of hypocrisy or bad faith, but of the complex ways in which ideals and realities shape each other for any individual in any culture. It is telling that one of the standard subjects of Chinese poetry was visiting a remote monastery: they were good places to visit, but would the poet really want to live there? If he did, who would see his poetry?