Outing To Whole South Mountain

About us
Contact us


Mountain men by nature stand tall

Slideshow  Google Map  Timeline  Timemap  Text Mode  Comments (0)

Outing To Whole South Mountain
       Meng Jiao 751-814

South Mountain 
        props up Heaven and Earth,
Sun and moon 
        sprout from it's rocks.
Tall peaks 
        sunder the night,
Deep valleys 
        no light at day.
Mountain men 
        by nature stand tall,
Although the trail's precipitous 
        the mind remains calm.
Stongs winds 
        excite the pine and cypress,
Its roar 
        sweeps all gullys clean.
Coming here 
        I regret studying books,
Day by day 
        searching for empty fame. 
Yóu Zhōngnánshān
Nánshān sāi tiāndì,
Rìyè shí shàng sheng.
Gāofēng yè liú jǐng,
Shēngǔ zhòu wèi míng.
Shanzhōng rén zì zhèng,
Lù xiǎn xīn yì píng.
Chāngfēng qū sōng bǎi,
Shēng fú wàn hè qīng.
Dào cǐ huǐ dúshū,
Zhāozhāo jìn fúmíng.
Translator: Dongbo 東波

In 1997, after visiting China, the geographer Kit Salter gave a talk on the blending of geography, literature and history and used this poem by Meng Jiao to illustrate his thoughts, using the translation by A C Graham in Poems of the Late T'ang.

Wandering on Mount Chung-nan

South Mountain stuffs all heaven and earth, 
 Sun and moon grow up from its stones.
 The high peak at night holds back the sun,
 The deep vales are never bright by day.
 Natural for mountain people to grow straight:
 Where paths are steep the mind levels.
 A long wind drives the pines and cypresses
 With a sound that sweeps the thousand hollows clean.
 Who comes here regrets that he ever studied
 Morning after morning, to be close to floating fame. Meng Jiao 810 A.D.

"This poem is from the late T'ang Dynasty in China, written by Meng Jiao in about 810 A.D. It is the product of a short episode in Chinese poetry characterized by a deviation from the strict formalism of classical verse. Such a break from tradition allowed for the incorporation of images and language that sounded a chord distinct from orthodox poetry. In the case of Meng Jiao,it resonated of strong landscape imagery.

Why in the world would a talk about geography and history open with an obscure Tang Dynasty Chinese ode? What is there in poetry that might suggest a union between two disciplines supposedly as distinct as geography and history? Or, what is the purpose in using a poem to express objective social science reality as we try to go beyond the textbook and the map?

If you feel you can already answer these three questions, then consider the poems you might use to develop my same line of reasoning. If you are not sure why poetry is brought to this forum, (then) I will try to make clear both the content and the intent of this message on geography and history.

First of all, let me present the (following) two premises..

Premise One: Geography and History are part and parcel of the same reality. There is no history that does not have a core carved of physical or cultural geography. In the same sense, landscape without history is an unused stage. It is an empty set that, without viewers or players, becomes meaningless.

Premise Two: As teachers all, we best possess the capacity to demonstrate the association between geography and history for we are the people who most commonly develop the mindsets for our students.. As we teach, as we talk, as we live our public lives, we create potential models for emulation and understanding. In that process, we can show that geography and history are inextricably bound into a single, vital reality.

Let me turn again to Meng Jiao's "Wandering on Mount Chung-nan" as an example of such evocative association. Let us attempt to read the scene of this poem.

"South Mountain stuffs all heaven and earth..." The poet's opening line announces the force of setting for his observation. The mountain is not merely an empty stage for him to people, but it is a presence that is, indeed, paramount. This announcement of setting must be comprehended, must be felt, before the reader - or the listener - can begin to make sense of the grander message of the poet. It is this declaration of the presence and power of landscape that places geography at the very outset of a learning experience, whether in poetry or in life in general.

"Sun and moon grow up from its stones..." continues the axial role that geography plays in Meng Chiao's purpose. The mountain is not merely there, it is the source for light and the cause of night. Both light and dark are borne of the peak's presence. Although geographers grow uneasy in discussions that link historical development to the raw nature of the environment, one must concede the relationship that does exist between the manner in which people have crafted their histories and the physical settings in which they find themselves. To Meng Jiao - or more accurately to the farmer who makes the poetic statement about mountain people and their world - the very character of the sun and the moon is derived directly from the power of South Mountain and its stony expression. The elemental force of physical geography is all around the poet's, the characters', and the observers' consciousness.

Take, for example, any historical event you are familiar with and fond of and try this simple rule of the mind: Is the environment a presence in the nature of that event? Did the physical setting have any influence on the way in which events transpired? Are the geography of the place and the nature of the historical event bound together in any knowable way? Ask this question of Asia; of America; of the 16th century; of today in Southern California. Can you honestly envision historical events unsupported, uninfluenced by geography?

Turn once again to Meng Jiao's ode on South Mountain.

"The high peak at night holds back the sun,

The deep vales are never bright by day..." The isolation of the mountain world is suggested by this imagery. The poet sees the geography of this mountain environment as being so singular that both days and nights are characterized by a different, a distinct cadence. The sun comes later to the mountain world, its brilliance may never seem to reach the peoples, the tarns, the glens, even the fields and plantings of South Mountain. It is a geography of distinction that Meng Chiao gives us at the outset of his statement.

But what is the history of this poem? What is it that the poet is interested in parading before our minds? Or does he merely want to capture landscape images with his words, not bothering to link them to human events? What is there for us to really read in this scene?

Meng Chiao answers these questions by bringing humankind on stage in his next lines.
"Natural for mountain people to grow straight:
Where paths are steep the mind levels." Here is a more blatant bit of environmental determinism. "Natural for mountain people to grow straight...." In this expression of a mountain population's sense of self we are reminded of the ways in which a people living outside the framework of high technology are more inclined to grant nature authority. Lowland, urban peoples have always been more inclined to be impressed with their own authority.

The mountain folk of Meng Jiao's South Mountain cannot help but sense a straightness, perhaps a directness that they see as a point of differentiation from distant, valley-loving, lowland populations. They perceive this directness to be a response to the physical setting that has them living ups and downs as they ply their crafts and work their land and fields. Or, might it be that these mountain folk simply see themselves as more straight than others but gracefully hide this self-assessment behind an environmental explanation out of courtesy to those who do not share their geographic setting - the steep paths and demanding slopes? Meng Jiao does not answer this question, but he does let us infer that he sees the mountain folk as distinct from those who live at the foot of the hills of South Mountain.

Is this not often the case when we look at a people, an event, even a period, free of the artificial trappings of academic divisions? Do we not see the American Civil War as the product of both landscapes and attitudes in conflict? Did not the 1930s Depression and Dust Bowl clearly derive from geographic as well as political and demographic factors? How can we not say that the entire tension-laden decade of the '90s shared by the United States and Iraq has grown out of a conflict fueled by finite global resources and divergent cultural systems? Geography underlies every strand of history.

Such is the reality of Meng Jiao's peopling of South Mountain. The author establishes the environment within which his person - or his people - will make a comment. He sets the stage for our observation of an attitude, a human perspective, and having established a setting of cold stone, deep vales, hidden sun and moon, and steep paths, he gives us the product of geography and history, after introducing one final environmental image that further maps the setting for these people.

"A long wind drives the pines and cypresses

With a sound that sweeps the thousand hollows clean...." Again the sense of isolation is sounded by a geographic image..."a thousand hollows, being swept clean by a wind driving through the pines and cypresses." What does it mean to be settled in a series of hollows, a thousand hollows? Each hamlet becomes a camp of self-sufficient mountain people, linked by demanding pathways, by traditional self-reliance, and by the wind that sweeps the hollows clean. What that really means is that the history of these people is one of independence. It is one of modest, even minimal intercourse with lowland populations. The tradition of South Mountain folk is one of self-reliance, keen awareness of local resources, and - as yet unstated - diffident suspicion of outsiders, especially outsiders from the lowlands.

Some of you will say that such an assumption is more of an inference than I have any right to make. I am, perhaps, comparing the South Mountain folk with the Hatfields and McCoys of the Appalachian Mountains. But this is simply a sign of how geography and history travel together in reality, and in our minds. Each of us has a series of not only mental maps of places, but mental profiles of peoples who inhabit those places. What do the South Mountain people look like? How do they compare with our imperfect images of Chinese city folk in Beijing? Even though our answers are going to be varied, they will take direction from our own personal histories and experiences. And all of our answers will conjure up some blended influence of geography and history as we attempt to read these scenes.

Meng Jiao sweeps the thousand hollow clean and then brings us the message that his mountain reverie has intended from the very beginning. With his final couplet, he exposes us to an historical truth that derives from the geography of his South Mountain world.

"Who comes here regrets that he ever studied
Morning after morning, to be close to floating fame."

The worlds are divided in these lines, but not the world of geography and history, but the worlds of the uplander and the lowlander. To Meng Jiao's way of thinking once the lowlander envelopes himself in the thousand hollows, or climbs the steep paths, or witnesses South Mountain stuffing all heaven and earth, he or she can no longer be driven by the same tradition - that is, the same history - that obtains in the more literate world below.

The pattern of study, morning after morning, is a history that knows a geography distinct from South Mountain. The demands of Chinese literacy, of examinations, of enormous chores of memorization, and of the competition for ascendancy in such an urban system ... those are the demands that must be met if one is to have any chance to "be close to floating fame." Thus was it in the late Tang Dynasty. Thus it has largely been for all of Chinese history.

Finally, then, in the imagery of Meng Jiao and his welcome to his readers for an exploration of the landscape and the mindscape of South Mountain, we are exposed to the real cultural gap between two places. On the one hand, we see in a direct and significant way the mountain landscape jutting up south of Chang-an (now X'ian), the capital of the Tang Dynasty. At the same time, we are provided a window into the cultural makeup of the people who live in those heights.

The net result of this imagery is to make ourselves play the various roles suggested by the poet and the poem. We climb the paths; we stand alone in the winds; we grow straight in our perception of these people for the geography of this scene provides a rich context for making assumptions about the wedding of geography and history.

"Who comes here regrets that he ever studied
Morning after morning, to be close to floating fame..."

This is the poet's lesson to us all. It is the outcome of learning from the landscape of South Mountain. Exposure to those mountain vales will lead to an understanding of the special and idiosyncratic history and tradition of that region's residents. There can be, Meng Jiao tells us, no history without geography.

And that is my point, that is the heart of Premise One. In looking at the reality of a scene - any scene - any observant person must realize that no event occurs without touching both the environment and the people involved in such a happening. There is no "a-spatial" or "space-free" event. If it occurred, it occurred in space. If it occurred in space, it is an event wrapped with the qualities, the elements, and the influences of the environment - both physical and cultural.

But, recall that there was, at the outset of my talk, the positing of not one, but two premises. Premise Two had to do with the role that we all play as teachers. Although we may be uneasy in acknowledging the truth of our position as "way finders" for the students who parade though our classrooms and our lives, we cannot be blind to the influence on their attitudes. Just as it is "natural for mountain people to grow straight," it is natural for students to observe, to learn from, and oftentimes to pattern themselves - at least in part - from the teachers who are such a large part of their consciousness.

In essence, then, my conclusion is that geography IS history. My perspective is that to teach well one must teach life as it really happens. Educators have learned to organize segments of reality into disciplines because of the enormity of the demands made on all teachers and the consequent security gained through discrete turf - a very geographical concept. But that expediency must not deny you an honesty in making your decisions about how you teach an event. Events require geography.

Just as you might hear of South Mountain and leave with only images of rock and isolation, your appreciation is enhanced by the introduction of people and human regret. In this sense, life is like poetry. And, as with Meng Chiao, the images are enlivened by blending the geography of South Mountain with the nature of people.

Do the same with your teaching. This will help you to truly read the scene in any event.

Teach geography and history in conjunction and you may even produce a class of students who will love coming morning after morning to be close to your floating fame as someone who understands how vital geography is to history ... and how critical the combination is to a comprehension of reality.

South Mountain stuffs all heaven and earth, 
 Sun and moon grow up from its stones.
 The high peak at night holds back the sun,
 The deep vales are never bright by day.
 Natural for mountain people to grow straight:
 Where paths are steep the mind levels.
 A long wind drives the pines and cypresses
 With a sound that sweeps the thousand hollows clean.
 Who comes here regrets that he ever studied
 Morning after morning, to be close to floating fame. Meng Chiao 810 A.D.

Make your students' only regret be that there is not more time to teach geography as history; to teach history as geography ... or to teach both as the poetry of human effort and awareness. Such a union is the real scene. We should all be both reading it and teaching it."

 © 1997 Christopher .L. "Kit" Salter

Related Items:
Zhōngnánshān, Far South Mountain; 終南山
Shǎnxī 陝西
Xīān (Chángān) 西安 (長安)