Illustrations to Tao Qian's prose poem “Homecoming”

Nancy Berliner

The poem “Homecoming” by Tao Qian (Chinese, AD 365–427) describes the poet’s dramatic decision as a government official, frustrated with corruption and politics, to abandon his government career in the city and pursue a secluded, Daoist life of self-cultivation in the countryside. He retreats to his home in the mountains and to the rural life.

This handscroll, painted about 800 years after ”Homecoming” was written, is a series of five paintings depicting scenes from the poem. Interspersed with calligraphy of the text, the handscroll combines China’s three great arts: painting, poetry, and calligraphy. The coloring and painting style intentionally reflect ancient manners of painting to evoke the period when Tao Qian was writing in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Rather than being openly confrontational, Chinese artists often use references to the past as quiet ways to speak about difficult situations in the present. For example, surrounded by the destruction in China’s cities from war during the 1930s, writers and artists referenced the annihilation under the Qin dynasty 2,000 years earlier (221–206 BC).

Despite the antiquity of Tao Qian’s poem, Chinese artists throughout the centuries continued to illustrate these moving words as a way of commenting on the politics of their day. Could this artist have been referring to his own dismay with the Mongol rulers who took over China in the 13th century? Even today, some people in countries around the world might feel the words resonate with their own circumstances. Would retreating to a life of farming in the mountains appeal to some dissatisfied with their government in current times?

“Homecoming” (an excerpt)

Ah, to return! Let me break off my social relations and end my wanderings. 

The world and I are not made for one another, so why should I be out there seeking? 

Here I am content with intimate conversations with my family, taking pleasure from my zither and books, dispelling my worries. 

The farmers say spring is arriving—I will have to go and work the western fields…

…Carrying a cane I wander peacefully,

now and then raising my head and looking into the distance.

There the clouds unintentionally take leave of the mountains, 

and birds, weary of flying, know it is time to go home.

The shadows dim as it is time to go inside,

I stroke the lonely pine tree, lingering.

Tao Qian's ink and color on silk, Homecoming prose poem
Unidentified artist, Illustrations to Tao Qian's prose poem "Homecoming," Chinese, Southern Song dynasty, 13th century. Ink and color on silk. Special Chinese and Japanese Fund. 20.757
Nancy Berliner is the Wu Tung Senior Curator of Chinese Art.