Heaven’s male yang and earth’s female yin, sky as living Absence and earth as living Presence: this is the nourishing cosmos of old China that David Hinton has been presenting for two decades in translations of classic Chinese poetry and wisdom, including Chuang Tzu, Mencius, the Tao te Ching and the Analects of Confucius. His translations comprise one half of the spiritual/poetic practice that informs this book, which minutely examines the way that Chinese words embody their pictographic etymology, helping to weave together human consciousness and the “natural world” at a fundamental level.
The other half of Hinton’s practice, inspired by the examples of ancient sages who “saw the deep structure of things most clearly when in the presence of mountain landscapes,” involves hiking the trail that leads from his Vermont home to the summit of the eponymous Hunger Mountain. The mountain’s name is peculiarly appropriate, for a prime characteristic of the Chinese cosmos is a restless hunger that “makes predator and prey part of a single living tissue,” both in physical reality and the realm of consciousness.
I have long had a passion for walking mountain landscapes. But it was not until reading Hunger Mountain that I noticed explicitly how an uneventful hike is a “perfect occasion to explore consciousness and landscape in and of themselves, as well as the dynamic interplay between them, which is to explore the fundamental texture of our everyday experience.”
The title of each short chapter of Hunger Mountain is a Chinese character, with English translation (always inadequate) in parentheses underneath the graph. For the first chapter, (Sincerity), the pictorial elements show a walking person next to words: inner thoughts are the same as the outer actions. Sincerity is a dynamic process in which restless hungry thoughts, perceptions, and actions eat and are in turn eaten. Our primal sincerity has been cloven so that we seem to find ourselves isolated, unchanging selves “peering out at a transitory world.” A long process of civilization, language, and writing has led to this alienation:
With the rise of alphabetic writing, the direct pictographic relationship to the ten thousand things was replaced by a phonetic relationship with the human voice, adding another dimension to that self-enclosed reflexive relationship to ourselves.
It is a great achievement of Hinton to give his readers a taste of how our alphabet changes our minds.
The very short last chapter has two Chinese characters as title, with translation (Heaven and Earth). There is no longer a need for pictographic etymology, for these two characters have become old friends through stories told in many of the preceding chapters. I discover that I can simply see the familiar and meaningful graphs whole, without a need to translate. There is a delicious, novel sensation in this mind-altering act.
Hunger Mountain is about poetry and language, and is also a book of wisdom. Hinton appears comfortable with his renown as translator and poet but is visibly uneasy at being regarded as wise sage. But here wisdom and poetry seem inseparable.
Classical Chinese poetry is a large presence; we spend a good bit of time with the poets, their poetry and the mountains that they frequented. The most prominent figure is Tu Fu, whose short poem “Moonrise” appears twice in full, first in the early chapter (Friends) and again in the late chapter (Unborn). The graph for friends is two moons, and Hinton presents his relationship with Tu Fu as exemplifying a Chinese understanding of friendship:
When Tu Fu and I gaze at the moon, our friendship takes the form of a shared identity, for our minds mirroring the moon are the same. . . . But what we share is not only that mirrored image of the moon, it is also ch’i, that tissue of traceless transformation in which things themselves remain unborn.
Hinton reminds us that a Chinese poem is assumed to be about the poet’s immediate experience. Tu Fu is present in “Moonrise” as Star River (our Milky Way) and as dewy chrysanthemums, which are in no way intended as metaphors for an “internal” emotional state, but rather represent his identity with the entire cosmos. A Chinese poem does not “spiritualize,” does not remove the center of experience from its rightful place in the ecosystem, but instead gives that center “an expansive identity that includes the ten thousand things.”
And when I translate the poem—Tu Fu speaking in my voice, and I in his—I too voice that unborn identity.
Hunger Mountain is an eloquent plea for the spiritual and environmental virtues of the poetic life, for me epitomized by the thought of gazing into the night sky “without any distinction between depths of consciousness and depths of space.” It’s a wonderful practice.