King of the lonely country, Zhou Mengdie left an outstanding mark in the Taiwanese poetry. Most people know him as a sadhu in poetry and a hermit in the city. Solitude and simplicity accompanied with creativity made him remarkable, as he devoted his life to exploring modern poetry and viewed life and poetry as two inseparable determinants of his personality. The road of Zhou Mengdie was full of hardships. It was as well influenced by religion and the contemporary political environment. All of these factors are easily traced in his poetry because they determined his writing style and made it unique and outstanding. In this way, the sense of self-exile interwoven with the integrated religious themes played a profound impact on the evolution of Zhou Mengdie’s poetry. Therefore, the paper at hand aims at investigating the life and works of the poet with the focus on the influence of religion, political environment, and life experience on his poetries as well as using these three factors as a premise for analyzing and understanding his literary heritage.
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In order to gain a better understanding of Zhou Mengdie’s poetry, it is essential to become aware of his background. He was born in Henan Province where he graduated from middle school, got married, and had a family. Nevertheless, serving in the military, he was forced to follow the Nationalist government to Taiwan and leave his family in the Mainland, thus sealing himself to self-exile and solitude. Born as Chou Meng-tieh, he decided to change his name. His pseudonym is dedicated to Zhuangzi, a Taoist philosopher, whom he often mentions in the poetries. That said, Zhou refers to the philosopher’s family name, while Mengdie is the translation of one of the sage’s tales – the butterfly dream. It was a perfect representation of his personality, as he was a hermit who dreamt of becoming a butterfly to be always happily fluttering around (Yeh and Malmqvist 92).
Later, he became a Buddhist and turned into the religious icon of the epoch. During all this time, Zhou Mengdie ran a small sidewalk bookstand in Taipei. He sold newspapers, poetry books, and magazines. Sometimes, he gave literature for free to students, thus demonstrating the desire to share knowledge. What is special about the poet is the fact that he never had home and family after leaving his wife and children and his self-exile to Taiwan. Therefore, his solitude in exile and his life choice to remain alone, as well as religiosity, became outstanding determinants of his poetries. During his life, he published two books of poetry and some poetry collections. His first book is entitled Lonely Country, and it is the very piece of art, which made him known as the king of the lonely country and proved that he was a sadhu in poetry and the city.
The influence of the political environment is complicated to trace in the poetries of Zhou Mengdie. Nevertheless, it is the political atmosphere in the Mainland that forced him to self-exile, thus determining the direction of his future life. Except for it, Zhou Mengdie’s poetry was significantly affected by religion, as there are references to Buddhism and religious themes in nearly all pieces of writing. Still, there are two ways of analyzing the poet’s works and their religiosity. First and foremost, it is the manner of writing. All poetries are written in a way that hints at calmness and stillness. They stimulate inner peace and motivate a reader to become involved in the inner reflection on the essence of living, the flow of life, and clarity of mind reached by the beauty of poetry. In this way, reversibility, i.e. palindromic form of writing, symmetry, and circularity are techniques, which are closely related to religion in the stimulation of reflections and meditation. It can be explained by the fact that a reader is totally consumed by particular poetry because it resembles music (Haft 39). For instance, refer to the following lines from “On the Ferry”:
Boat – carrying the many, many shoes,
Carrying the many, many
Facing each other and facing away.
Rolling, rolling – in the deeps,
Flowing, flowing – in the unseen:
Man on the boat, boat on the water,
Water on Endlessness,
Endlessness is, Endlessness is upon
My pleasures and pains,
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Born in a moment
And gone in a moment. (Yeh and Malmqvist 98-99)
These lines, just like numerous other poetries, are melodic and resemble music. From this perspective, there is a referral to the influence of religion on the writing style, as these lines not only help to become calm and reach stillness but also point to the flaw of life compared to water, which is a common concept in Buddhism (Haft 11). This lyricism makes a reader become consumed with a poem and focused on the essence of the written words instead of paying attention to the chaos of the world. In this way, it resembles Buddhist texts, which call upon stepping away from the whirling of events around and individual and concentrating on particular thoughts and reasons for particular phenomena as a tool for becoming wise (Lupke x).
Moreover, just like the apprehension of religion, Zhou Mengdie’s poetries are complicated to understand without a particular background and certain life experience. In this way, his works are as well related to his biography, especially running the bookstand and sharing knowledge with others. This statement can be easily supported by analyzing the following lines from “Diary of a Believer”:
Yesterdays soaked through,
Drenched in the shades
Of Hamlet and Rudin!
… In the crazy, wide-awake eyes
Of Omar Khayyam, I see the Eternal reflected,
And hidden behind the Eternal,
My name. (Yeh and Malmqvist 94-95)
In order to apprehend what is meant by the Eternal, as well as find out why yesterdays are compared to the shades of Hamlet and Rudin, it is critical to have at least some background related to the poet and the mentioned works. In this way, Zhou Mengdie’s either stimulates a reader to obtain more knowledge, thus becoming better like in the case of religion or call out to the acquaintance with literature and other fields of knowledge.
More than that, religious themes can be traced in wise thought expressed by the poet in his writings. Referrals to sages such as Zhuangzi are a common trick used by Zhou Mengdie. Moreover, he is known for quoting sutras of other philosophers in order to point to the comprehensiveness of life as well as the flow of life:
All floweth forth from this Dharmadhatu,
All floweth into this Dharmadhatu. (Haft 12)
He connects the two shores of life, the beginning and ending, thus pointing to the existence of a particular course and making an oblique referral to flow as consciousness instead of water. The reference to a philosopher, whom he was inspired by, can be traced in the following lines from “The Cold That Can Take the Cold”:
Even if you’ve never in a dream be a fish,
Been a bird, been a butterfly –
If you live here long enough,
Confused and all, still and all,
Without expecting it and all
You’ll start to be a Zhuangzi. (Haft 15)
Except for being melodic, these lines incorporate all the aspects of religious themes in Zhou Mengdie’s poetry because they point to the significance of knowledge portrayed in all, the criticality of stillness for becoming wiser, as well as the reference to an outstanding philosopher.
To sum up, it is essential to state that life experience, religion, and political environment are those factors, which had a robust impact on Zhou Mengdie’s personality and the way he perceived the world. What is significant about the political environment and his military service, in particular, is the fact that they brought the poet to where he belonged and helped him to turn into a Buddhist and become one of the shining lights of the Taiwanese poetry (Chi 20). In this way, he determined the direction of Taiwanese art development and its interrelation with religion. Just like Buddhist texts hint at stillness and meditation, Zhou Mengdie’s poetries are the source of inner peace and comfort, which motivate a reader to separate themselves from the chaos of the world and work on developing their personality.
Chi, Pang-Yuan. “Taiwan Literature, 1945-1999.” Chinese Literature in the Second Half of a Modern Century: A Critical Survey, edited by Pang-Yuan Chi and David Der-Wei Wang, Indiana University Press, 2000, pp. 14-30.
Haft, Lloyd. Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness. Harrassowitz, 2006.
Lupke, Christopher. New Perspectives on Contemporary Chinese Poetry. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Yeh, Michelle Mi-His, and Nils Göran David Malmqvist. Frontier Taiwan: Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry. Columbia University Press, 2001.