Hermann Hesse’s Understanding of Ancient Chinese Poets

August 9, 2015 Updated: May 5, 2016

The German author Hermann Hesse, known for his work about nature and his fascination with Eastern cultures and thought, penned a short, fairytale-like story set in old China. Titled “The Poet,” it concerns the life and work of Han Fook, an aspiring poet who leaves secular life to train with a mysterious old sage who introduces himself as the Master of the Perfect Word. It is one of eight short stories in a 1972 publication called “Strange News from a Another Star.”

Hesse’s hero encounters the sage while observing the indescribable beauty of a lantern festival reflected in the Yellow River, site of his home city. Overcome with a feeling that “true happiness and deep satisfaction could only” come from mirroring the “essence of the world” in his poetry, Han Fook comes across a strange old man in violet robes who reveals his identity as the Master and directs him to the mountains.

Hermann Hesse in 1946 (Public Domain)
Hermann Hesse in 1946. (Public Domain)

Paramount in Hesse’s story is the idea of expressing, through art, purity of thought in a world of chaotic phenomena. Though initially Han Fook leaves home to sharpen his skills and make a name for himself, he gradually gives up the attachment to worldly pursuit during his training. He discovers a form of higher achievement, one not rooted in worldly gain.

As Hesse’s countryman, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, wrote in the sonnet “Nature and Art,” art is a manmade reflection of nature that, as Hesse’s protagonist discovers, offers true freedom.

“Nature and Art, they seem to go their separate ways,
Yet suddenly they encounter each other.

Indeed, only an honest effort is worthy!
And only when we measure out the hours
And binding ourselves to art with spirit and diligence,
Will nature again set our hearts alight.”

(translated from textlog.de)

Art as a search for the union of man with nature is a common theme that can be found throughout Chinese literature, as shown in the work of two famous recluse Chinese poets who lived over a thousand years ago.

Tao Yuanming and the Yearning for Nature  

Tao Qian (365–427), also known as Tao Yuanming, was an official in the fragmented Six Dynasties period (220–589). After many years of service, he became disillusioned with the annoyances of political life and went to the countryside, where he composed many well-known works.

In “Returning to Residence in the Fields No. 1,” he makes clear this flight to nature and escape from secular toil.

"Tao Yuanming Seated Under a Willow" by the Japanese artist Tani Bunchō, 1812 (Public Domain)
“Tao Yuanming Seated Under a Willow” by the Japanese artist Tani Bunchō, 1812. (Public Domain)

“Since young I was not matched with the worldly customs:
My nature is in love with the hills and mountains.

Caged birds pine for their old woods;
The ponded fish thinks of its native depths.
I have opened up land in the southern wastes,
Keeping my simplicity, I return to plot and field.

My home has no turmoil of the mundane world;
In its empty rooms there is the wealth of leisure.
For so long I have lived in a cage,
And return now to Nature.”

(translated from source at gushiwen.org)

One of Tao Yuanming’s most famous prose works, the “Peach Blossom Spring,” depicts the narrator’s journey to a land hidden from the outside world. Following a short, idyllic stay, the traveler leaves with the intent to return. Yet even with the backing of a rich friend, he is never again able to rediscover this utopia through physical, external pursuit.

Just as Tao Yuanming is driven by a yearning for the natural realm, Hesse’s protagonist is motivated by an innate desire to reflect the beauty of the world in words. He feels it predestined for him that he should have the opportunity to study and learn from the Master of the Perfect Word, and gives up his bride and position to train in the wilderness.

The predestined feeling is acknowledged by Han’s father, who surmises that it may be the prerogative of a god. Han Fook takes off for the northwestern mountains and begins the cultivation of his art, which he admits may take many years.

Cultivating Artistic Mastery in Nature’s Sanctuary

As Han Fook trains, it soon becomes clear that his skill is not the only subject of his cultivation—he himself must elevate in spiritual level. Multiple times he steals back home with the thought that he has missed out on life, but every time he cannot help but be drawn back to the woods and to his master, who teaches him through hints and simple instruction, as well as the teaching of the flute and the zither.  

The use of music has profound significance in Chinese spiritual tradition; it was considered by Confucius, the great social and moral teacher, to be a key instrument in harmonious governance. Likewise, the art of poetry itself serves as a lyrical connector between the confines of human language and the myriad expressions of the visceral, natural realm.

Chinese poetic work is permeated with scenes of nature and speaks to the calling of a higher plane. Wang Wei, an eighth-century poet of the early Tang Dynasty who became a devout Zen Buddhist, is a renowned example.

In “The Villa of the Southern Extreme,” he describes relocating to the mountains in search of a “good Way,” and eventually loses track of time while conversing with an old man he meets in nature.

Wang Wei’s poems focus on scenes that depict the vast scale and majesty of the natural world; humans, even when they do appear, are in the diminutive.

In “Mountain Life in the Autumn Night,” Wang Wei writes of massive mountains after a rain, demonstrating the greatness of Heaven and Earth. Then, through pine forests and running spring waters, washerwomen chatter in a bamboo thicket. A final line by the narrator expresses his humble satisfaction with the scene.

Wang Wei's poem
Wang Wei’s poem “Mountain Life in the Autumn Night” superimposed on painting by Xin Tian.  (Xin Tian/Epoch Times)

It is this humble reverence that Han Fook develops before his master and, more importantly, before the world. He even becomes unattached to the passage of time. He gives up not only his secular fortune but even the desire for secular accomplishment in exchange for full mastery of his vocation.

Only through apparent loss was Han Fook able to find what he was searching for. As Goethe put it in “Nature and Art”:

“He who seeks greatness must bring himself together:
The Master reveals himself only in limitation,
And the law alone can give us freedom.”

Transcending the Human Element, Leaving the Secular Plane   

After the sudden departure of his master, Han Fook realizes that his training is complete and returns to his home city. He gazes upon the same lantern festival that first prompted his spiritual odyssey. Looking at the autumn scene, Han Fook, now an old man and the new master, beholds the perfection not only in nature but in his diction, just as the Yellow River reflects it in its waters.  

For the world described in the verses of Chinese poetry—the mastery of “perfect words,” as Hesse called it—is one reached through spiritual elevation and the giving up of material interest.

The poetry of Tao Yuanming, Wang Wei, and that of the later Tang and Song Dynasty masters—Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Shi, to name a few—married the lyrical art of poetry to the wisdom of classical Chinese teachers and philosophers. The vast body of famous works and the richness of the Chinese written language have reached a broad audience over many centuries and into the present, beyond the borders of China itself.