'Substance, Shadow and Spirit'

Tao Yuanming, also known as Tao Chien (365-427 CE), is widely considered to be one of the greatest poets of the Six Dynasties Era. Throughout most of his life, he served as a government official in both military and civil capacities, but he was unable to rise to a prominent position. He became deeply unhappy and conflicted, feeling a strong desire just to give it all up. The catalyst was the death of his sister in 405 CE, which coupled with his disdain for the corruption within the Jin Court, prompted him to pack his bags and head for home. He then spent the rest of his life as a recluse, and it was here that he wrote his greatest works.

為五斗米折腰

I will not ‘bow like a servant in return for five bushels of grain’ (the salary of low-level officials). A famous saying accredited to Tao Yuanming on keeping to one’s principles and integrity.

The poem ‘Substance, Shadow and Spirit’, written by Tao Yuanming, is essentially a dialogue between a person's physical being (substance), his reputation (shadow), and his soul (spirit). The substance stresses our mortality: it argues for getting drunk on wine and pursuing physical pleasures since we will eventually be forgotten after death and there is little point in anything else. Yet the shadow argues that by doing good works people praise us, even after death, and in this respect we can become immortal. Then along comes the spirit. In classic Taoist fashion, the spirit encourages us to surrender to the workings of nature and accept the inevitability of death. Only by doing so will we become happy.

Text by Hastings Forman

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