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Cloud

| 2020-07-22
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
This character usually refers to clouds. It also means “to say or speak” in ancient Chinese.
 
云深不知处 
yún shēn bù zhī chù 
Yun refers to clouds and shen means “deep.” Bu zhi means “don’t know” and chu refers to location. This term, taken literally, means that deep clouds set one to wondering where one is. 
 
This line is derived from a famous poem, “Looking for a Recluse but Failing to Find Him,” by the Tang poet Jia Dao (779—843). “Under the pines I questioned the boy./ ‘My master’s off gathering herbs./ All I know is he’s here on the mountain—/ clouds are so deep, I don’t know where …’” (trans. Burton Watson). It seems to be a simple poem, but its meaning has been debated. 
 
The title of this poem provides us with some important information not present in the main body of the poem: the motive of the poet is seeking a hermit in the mountains, and the result of this trip ends in failure. Seeking out a recluse for advice in life or just a friendly conversation is a frequent subject in Chinese poetry as the Chinese people have always viewed those living a reclusive life with awe and respect. 
 
The character, yun (cloud), can be viewed as a reference to the hermit. Clouds are often related to concepts of freedom and leisure, which befits the characteristics of a hermit’s life perfectly. The last two lines are presumably spoken by the young apprentice answering to questions posed by the poet, implying that the poet had asked two further questions. Then the poem comes to its end, which is not a happy ending as everything seems to hang in mid-air. Some believe that this sense of loss or uncertainty is what the poet really wishes to convey with his poem, that life may not have easy answers to our problems. 
 
Jia was kind of a recluse himself. He used to be a monk, before his talents in poetry drew attention from Han Yu, a Tang literary giant and renowned politician. After meeting Han, Jia Dao decided to quit his previous life and instead seek fame and influence in politics. However, this change in direction did not prove to be fruitful, and Jia remained a petty official all his life. It is because of this unfortunate turn of events that we often see in his poems depictions of his sorrows, lamentations and other negative emotions. 
 
edited by REN GUANHONG