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Meng Haoren: His Life

Meng Haoren: His Life

Meng Haoran (689-740 AD) was the first, in a long line of major Tang Dynasty (618-907) poets, the time period, and dynasty most historians, scholars and Chinese believe to be China’s golden age. He was born, raised, and lived most of his life in Xiangyang, a city on the Han River in the province of Hubei. The Han River, being one of the main tributaries to the Changjiang (Yangtze River), along with the surrounding mountains and watersheds, greatly influenced Meng’s life and poetic works. Some critics have called Meng the link, or bridge, between Tao Yuanming of the fourth and fifth centuries and the soon to come High Tang period, when famous poets like Li BaiDu Fu and Wang Wei lived.

During Meng’s life, Xiangyang was a mid-sized city in north-central Hubei. It was a major regional market town and military stronghold that was inside the ancient nation of Chu. The population was around 250,000. It was a major transfer point for travelers: switching from horse to boat if going south, and switching from boat to horse if one was going to the north. A significant attraction was the beauty of the surrounding countryside. Mt. Wan was three miles to the west of the city. Mt. Xian was two and a half miles to the south. Meng writes of this mountain several times. Ten miles to the southeast was the famous Deer Gate mountain (Lumen Shan). Haoren also writes eight poems to this mountain and one of its recluses, Wang Qiong, a close friend, who had a hut nearby.
Meng was buried near his home, on ancestral land just south of Pheonix Mountain.

Biographical information comes to us from four primary sources: (1) The Old History of the Tang Dynasty, compiled by imperial order in 941, and first printed in 1000-02; (2) New History of the Tang Dynasty, compiled by imperial order in 1045, and first printed in 1061-63; (3) the preface to The Collected Poems of Meng Haoren by Wang Shiyuan, written between 745 and 750; (4) and the poems of Meng Haoran and his contemporaries.

From the first source we have only received an outline. Meng Haoran lived as a recluse at Lumen (Deer Gate) Mountain. At the age of forty he went to the capital, Chang’ An (modern day Xi’an) to take the imperial examination. Having failed the exam, he returned to his hometown. When Zhang Jiuling took office at Qingzhou, Meng became his Assistant Investigator. The two men wrote poetry together, and Meng never rose higher in office for the rest of his life.

The second source added that Meng Haoran was from Xiangyang, in the Xiang prefecture. While at the capital to take the imperial examination, he met the famous poet Wang Wei, who introduced him to the emperor. Meng read some of his poetry to emperor Xuanzong, but after reading the line, “Because I lack talent, the illustrious ruler has rejected me,” the emperor ordered him out of the palace and back to his hometown. Later, the Imperial Investigating Commissioner Han Chaozung made arrangements to take Meng back to the capital. But after getting drunk with friends, turned down the invitation. Around the year of 740, Meng fell ill with an infection on his back, and died. There is also mention of Meng’s tomb over the years being sunk and crumbled, and that his progeny had declined. This is the only written acknowledgement of Meng ever having any children.

Meng was born into a rujia, a Confucian family. For at least three generations the Mengs were educated and followed the teachings of Kongzi (Confucius). For most of his life, Meng Haoran lived and worked on his grandfather’s land. The Meng family name was the same as the famous Mengzi.  Haoren appears to have followed Mengzi’s advise in that if friendship of the best men in the present age is insufficient, then go back and read the works of the men of former times. Make your friends with those in past history.

Judging by Meng’s lack of a government position, yet being able to travel throughout most of his life, and not living in severe rural poverty like Tao Yuanming, his extended family and ancestors were probably somewhat prosperous and educated. It appears that he had at least one sister and two younger brothers, one of whom also failed the imperial exams. There is no record of Meng having any grandchildren.

Meng’s life can be divided into four parts. From his birth, to the time he was almost forty years old, was mostly a time of happiness. He spent the majority of his youth and early adulthood in and around his hometown, living a simple and rural life. He worked in the fields and gardens, and then studied in order to sit for, and then pass the imperial examinations in the capital of Chang’an. His desire was to obtain a government position, and then go out into the world. For a while, he thought that he could get an appointment solely on his guanxi, his social connections. He socialized with the local government officials and visiting dignitaries, gaining insight into the workings of the imperial bureaucracy. But he came to the conclusion that his guanxi, by itself, was not going to be enough. Reading the Confucian classics, knowing a lot about his local government, and studying hard, Meng felt confident that he would pass the exams. His travels during this period included the Dongting Lake area, the provinces of Hunan and Jiangxi, and around the Changjiang (Yangzi River). During these travels he met a lot of people, and improved his craft of writing poetry.

Around the winter of 728, Meng traveled to Chang’an to sit for the imperial examination. This at the very late age of thirty-nine, while most candidates were in their twenties. This second period of his life began with the bitter disappointment and surprise at failing to pass these examinations. It was at this time he met, and wrote poems for Wang Wei. By the next autumn, being sick, out of money and homesick, Meng returned home. He wrote many poems on his way back to his hometown.

From around 730 to 733, the third chapter of Meng’s life, found him traveling more. After spending several months at home, and calming his anger and disappointment at not passing the exams, he went to the city of Luoyang and the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. For over two years Meng wandered around, drinking wine, traveling in small boats up and down many rivers, and writing many of his poems. He visited HangzhouShaoxing, the Tiantai Mountains, Jiande River, and Yuezhou before going up the Changjiang to his hometown.

In 734 he again traveled to Chang’an to sit for the imperial examinations. And once again he failed to pass them. The remaining years of Meng’s life were mostly spent near his hometown. He made one trip outside to Sichuan. He wrote a lot of hometown, rural poetry. Having lost his anger at not passing the exams, he entertained many visiting government officials. He continued to visit Buddhist temples and drink wine with Daoist friends. For two years, from 737 to 739 Meng worked for Zhang Jiuling, who was a high government official. But in 739 he returned home with both illness and homesickness. Both Meng and Zhang died a year later.

There is only poem where Meng Haoren mentions that he had a wife.

Meng, by not passing the imperial examinations, and by not having any imperial family connections, could not qualify for a government job on his own, and thus lived a life close to poverty and want. The first forty years of his life were happy, but after failing the exams, bitterness and anger had to be dealt with. The rural and secluded life of his youth was used in order to study for the exams, and not for spiritual, or political, reasons as they were later on.

While living in the capital before and after the exams, Meng wanted to know what kind of people passed. His conclusion was that the emperor wanted to pass people who would follow orders and obey directives from superiors, and not to be concerned with new or innovative ideas. The exam questions were mostly hypothetical ones, that is, what should one do in certain situations while serving in the countryside as a government official. From post-examination interviews of those who did pass, Meng found out that one needed to first compliment the imperial rule, and only then could one criticize or suggest indirectly and implicitly. This Meng did not do. Perhaps he was too old and experienced to be considered malleable material for the imperial program. Maybe the emperor thought that Meng might be too forward and controversial in his government service.

In the immediate years after failing the exams, Meng decided to go traveling. In 733 he began to study Buddhism. He revisited Buddhist temples with a new outlook and appreciation. Dao Buddhists could have jobs, families, and be in the world, often becoming the community “shaman”, offering prayers and herbal medicines to cure and advise. Now Meng’s yinju was natural and chosen. He never wanted to work for government after failing the exams. At the end of his life most of his bitterness and anger was not directed so much at the emperor, but rather at those surrounding him. He was resigned to the fact that many others, like him, were very talented, but unused by the imperial government.

Ruling Emperors during Meng Haoran’s lifetime:
Gao Zong (r. 650-683) with the empress Wu Zetian (r. 690-705)
Zhong Zong (r. 684 and 705-710)
Shang Di (r. 710)
Rui Zong (r. 684-690 and 710-712)
Xuan Zong (r. 712-756)

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