[Look for] [hermit] [not] [meet]
Xún yǐn zhě bùyù
Looking in vain for the Hermit
Táng· Jiǎ Dǎo
By: Jia Dao
[pine] [under] [ask] [apprentice]
sōngxià wèn tóngzǐ,
Underneath a pine tree I asked an apprentice where to find his master,
[said] [master] [pick] [medicinal herbs] [go]
yán shī cǎi yào qù.
The apprentice replied that his master was collecting herbs,
[he] [on] [this] [mountain] [process of, currently]
Zhǐ zài cǐ shānzhōng,
The master is on this very mountain,
[cloud] [deep] [can’t] [know] [situated]
yún shēn bùzhī chù.
But in the deep fog I can’t find him.
处：位于, to be situated, (postion in relation to something else)
在…中 — In the process of
中 here is used after a verb or verbal phrase to indicate in the process of, or within something. It is often used to emphasize the immediacy of one’s location or situation.
This building is still under construction.
I'm in the subway.
There are several symmetries of thought within this poem.
This poem was written in an era when the ascent to prestige was especially treacherous and difficult. Many learned individuals were put off by the arduous Civil Service exams, which required years of study, as well as the political infighting that was in store for them if they passed. Looking for answers, many turned to the three dominant schools of thought for guidance. Remarkably despite there many differences, on the topic of living well they all shared a consensus:
Rújiā: Lè tiān zhī mìng
Confucianism: Accept whatever comes your way and be content with your lot.
Dàojiā: Zhī zú bù rǔ
Daoism: If one knows contentment, one will not desecrate one’s body.
Fújiā: Sì dà jiē kōng
Buddhism: The physical world is illusory.
In effect, Confucianism (儒家), Taoism (道家), and Buddhism (佛家), all advocated for leaving the courts and their political intrigue behind in favor of leading a far simpler life. Taking these lessons to heart, some decided to throw caution to the wind and retreat far into the countryside, where they wiled away their days drinking and reading. In the seclusion of the mountains, they were free to experiment without fear of reprisal from the government.
In this poem, objects stand in for various philosophical stances taken by each school. The 松 or pine trees that the traveller and apprentice stand under allude to the Confucian conception of the strict cosmic order than man is a part of. The 采药 or medicinal herbs speak to man being intrinsic to rather than separate from nature. Finally, the 云深 or deep fog alludes to the Buddhist precept that the self and the universe are unknowable. All three are natural elements that exist in relation to each other.
Compellingly, the lifelong spiritual journey of the individual can be found in the poem’s thematic structure. In this first line, Jia Dao asks the hermit’s apprentice where to find his master, embarking on his quest. Alas, in the second line it is revealed that the master is not at hand — he is collecting herbs nearby. The third line brings hope; he is on this very mountain, which is subsequently dashed in the fourth line — it’s too foggy to see him. Put another way, the first and third lines of this poem are optimistic, whereas the second and fourth are pessimistic. Jia Dao therefore seems to suggest an inherent balance — to be an individual is a process of perpetual becoming, with all of its starts and stops.
Shortcut to fame or success
The setting of Jia Dao’s famous poem happens to be a real place. Zhongnan Mountain is located just south of Xi’an in Shanxi province. At one point, it was also home to Lu Zangyong, a Tang official who lived there as a hermit before becoming a high-ranking government official in Chang’an. His friend, Sima Chengzhen, wryly suggested that living in Zhongnan Mountain was a shortcut to his success.
Original Source: The New Book of Tang, Lu Yangyong Biography
While generally studied at the university level abroad, native Chinese speakers often memoize classical poetry from a young age. As such, there is a great range of helpful and accessible content on many famous Chinese poems. This video offers a helpful explainer on the historical context and symbolism explored in Searching In Vain for the Hermit.
A very good Chinese language analysis of this poem.
Three different English translations of the same poem for your reference. Some are almost certainly better than mine.
Betty Tseung’s English Translation of Chinese Poetry →
Sun Zhu’s 300 Chinese and English Tang Poems →
In addition to rhyming syllables, Chinese poets also used tonal patterns in their works. The bold text denotes the tonal pattern found in this particular poem.
All the tone markers in this piece correspond to modern Mandarin’s four tones. Unfortunately, we often don’t know how tones have changed over time, so the tones described here are only an educated guess.