Poetry Speaks: James Au’s Selection

題西林壁
Written on the Wall at West Forest Temple (1084)

橫看成嶺側成峯,
It’s a range viewed in face and peaks viewed from the side,

遠近高低各不同。
Assuming different shapes viewed from far and wide.

不識廬山真面目,
Of Mountain Lu we cannot make out the true face,

只緣身在此山中。
For we are lost in the heart of the very place[1].

These days the poem of Su Shi (1037-1101) is imprinted on my mind. I first came across it as a secondary school student. I detested it because the teacher required us to learn it by heart, without even knowing what the lines meant. It was not until seven or eight years ago that the same Chinese classic, appended as an epigraph to an academic article, caught my eyes again.

In the poem, the persona visits Mountain Lu, located in Jiujiang in central China, and finds the “different shapes” of the mountain coming into view because of the different positions of viewing. In other words, the limited scope of perspective at a fixed position is emphasized in the first two lines. The “true face [of Mountain Lu]” cannot be beheld because the visitor is inside the mountain, unable to look from the outside.

The poem, though short, is thought-provoking and applicable to daily life. Reading Su Shi’s poem countless times, I remind myself of not possessing any narrow disposition. More important is to always think from a different perspective. The world today is imbued with fake news and political biases, implying that one should always doubt the existence of a single perspective in any news report or commentary. More often, I check whether the argument is coherent, as well as the background of the writer, and if it’s a news report, I try to check the source,. Even though truth is as ungraspable as the whole face of Mountain Lu itself, at least it is essential to find another angle to observe it to achieve a certain degree of objectivity.

The four-line poem is as though advising me to remain open-minded, too. The over-specialisation of academia always limits our scope of thinking. For example, a literary critic specialising in twentieth century French literature might know little beyond his research area. A friend of mine who did his PhD in biology once told me that his supervisor is an expert in just one human blood vessel. My friend boasted that, beyond this, he himself would know more details than his supervisor. I don’t deny the importance of specialisation, but would a more interdisciplinary academic environment not bring more inspiration and breakthroughs?

For this reason, when I am lost in the heart of the very place—my own research—I turn to reading something seemingly irrelevant, hoping something serendipitous might intervene.


[1] Su Shi. Selected Poems of Su Shi. Ng Kin Sing et al, ed. Chiao Liu Publishing (Canada) Inc., 2010, pp. 192-193.

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James_Au

James Au is a Master’s graduate of both Hong Kong Baptist University and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo, writing his dissertation about the relation between history and literature through close readings of East Asian historical narratives in the 1960s. His research interests include Asian literatures, comparative literature, historical narratives and modern poetry. During his leisure time, he writes poetry and learns Spanish, Korean and Polish. He teaches English at Salesio Polytechnic College and literature in English at Tama Art University. [Click here to read all entries by James.]

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