The sentimentality of idleness: Two Definitions of Leisure

Penglai Peak (Penglai feng), from Luo-Fu Mountains (Luo-Fu shan shuhua ce) by Shitao (From the Princeton University Art Museum)

The word leisure may conjure many different images in the mind of a contemporary English speaker: reading, exercising, cooking, or perhaps, in the more likely scenarios, enjoying a moment browsing on various electronic devices. Although the poetic sentiment being discussed in this and other pieces in this section could be roughly translated as “leisure”, the character and concept of 閒 (xián) is less “time…when one can rest, enjoy hobbies or sports”, and more a particular and nuanced mental stillness, as well as the subtle emotional fluctuations that such a state entails. 

The complex and varied schemas attached to the character make it difficult to translate, as there is no direct English equivalent. Perhaps it is more accurate to render the character as “idleness”, the antithesis of being occupied, rather than leisure. Yet that translation is not entirely satisfactory either, since the character also evokes a positive sensation of peacefulness, akin to the concept of Zen, as well as the more negative connotations of being off-topic and unimportant. Resultantly, perhaps the most preferable way of exploring xián is to address its two antithetical iterations, one when idleness is a blessing, the other when it is a curse, separately. 

One: Having enough time to be at peace with one’s mind and the world

A famous Chinese Guzheng piece entitled “High Mountain and Running River” that embodies this contemplative idleness just as well as the poem below…

Idling fellow…sweet Osmanthus petals fall,
Tranquil night…spring mountain deserted.
Then moonrise, startling mountain birds,
Calling, oftentimes within spring brooks.

《鸟鸣涧》唐·王维 Wang Wei [Tang Dynasty]

In an age without the varied entertainment options provided by the modern world, ancient Chinese poets did many things during their leisure time. Some of these activities have already been discussed, such as drinking by oneself (often to the moon), or with friends. There is, however, one more manifestation of leisure that poets often describe — finding peace in a contemplative idleness. 

This poem by Wang Wei, its title translated often as Calling-Bird Brook, is perhaps the most famous of the many verses describing such a state of inactivity. Despite its extreme concision and the fact that the idle person is mentioned only once in the first line, each of the many images evoked contributes to the construction of an atmosphere of stillness, contemplation and peacefulness. In the first couplet, the stillness of the person is juxtaposed against the movement of falling petals, symbolizing the passage of time and changes in season, both common subjects for philosophical contemplation. This image is set against a broader backdrop of the mountain, towering motionless in the silent night, beyond the reach of mundane concerns. The poem then moves from this meditative stillness to sudden enlightenment, embodied by the domino effect caused by the moonlight — it startles the birds in the mountain, causing them to swoop down into the brooks, their call piercing the preceding silence.  

In his seminal work The Art of Chinese Poetry, scholar James Liu suggests that the type of idleness evoked by Wang Wei is neither a derogatory indolence, nor purely the absence of activity. Instead, the person described in the first line is at peace, his mind peaceful, free of worldly concerns. Peace here is defined not merely as the absence of conflict, but embodies a more philosophical state of being, closer to the Western understanding of Zen. Although Zen is more commonly associated with Japanese culture, the term originated from Chinese Chán Buddhism, a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism that developed during the Tang dynasty, and only later evolved into multiple Japanese schools. 

The influence of Tiantai, a Buddhist school popular during the Sui and Tang dynasty that fuses Confucian and Taoist thought with imported Buddhist ideas, is apparent in Wang Wei’s lines, which could be read as describing meditation. Meditation practices emphasized the dynamics between 止 (zhǐ, śamatha, meaning cessation) and 观 (guān, vipaśyanā, meaning contemplation and realization). Interpreting the poem under this framework, it is not difficult to identify the first couplet as a description of a subject meditating in nature, allowing earthly concerns to brush past, until they reach, in the second couplet, a realization that reveals some essence of existence. 

Since the “cessation” of activities is a prerequisite for reaching the state of zhǐ, which in turn is necessary for spiritual realization, it is no wonder that idleness is elevated to such a level of philosophical significance in Chinese poetry.

Returning Birds and Old Cypress by Anonymous (From The Cleveland Museum of Art)

Two: Having too much time to ponder life’s copious bitter imperfections

Despite its supposed ability to elevate mortals to a higher philosophical plane, the state of zhǐ is perhaps elusive for many in the current conditions of the world. Mortal concerns are, in this moment, so intense that sitting alone with one’s thoughts, idle, unoccupied would probably bring about the exact opposite of their cessation. Fear not, ancient Chinese poets too were troubled by worldly concerns, and had word and lines to describe this type of unsettling idleness.

Who says this languor has long gone?
Every spring, the melancholy returns still.
Each day, I drink till sick before flowers,
Not daring to resist my wilting reflection.

《蝶恋花·谁道闲情抛弃久》五代·冯延巳 Feng Yansi [Five Dynasties]

Spring in Jiangnan by Wen Zhengming (From Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

James Liu contrasts this poem by Feng Yansi against Wang Wei’s philosophical lines:

…it signifies a nonchalant, listless, and wistful state of mind that resembles ‘ennui’.

James J. Y. Liu in The Art of Chinese Poetry

In his poem, Feng romanticizes the prospect of wasting away through excessive drinking, yet does not give a reason for his sadness. Instead, he speaks of a listlessness and subtle melancholy that persists, in which he indulges thoroughly, daring not to resist its call. Describing his inability to prevent himself from pining away with wine as “not daring to” do so adds a moral dimension to his action, implying a masochistic enjoyment of, and indulgence in, this type of idle melancholy. Similar to the nineteenth century European concept of decadence, the languor described in Feng’s poem did not result from deprivation, but rather is a disease of abundance and sophistication. Doubtless, in a time of great turbulence and unrest (as the Five Dynasties certainly were), only cultured officials like Feng could afford to reserve time for such leisurely experiences of sadness.

Such artistic expressions of ennui, however, were not penned solely by statesmen poets during times of war.

The flowers fade as water flows,
One strain of deep longing,
Two scenes of idle sorrow.
No way to rid this lasting love,
Banished from one’s brows,
It reappears in one’s breast.

《一剪梅·红藕香残玉簟秋》宋·李清照 Li Qingzhao [Song Dynasty]

Revisiting this lyric by Li Qingzhao, this time focusing on the second stanza, reveals that the intense longing for her loved one the persona exhibits is described as an ‘idle sorrow’. Yet this by no means diminishes the depth of emotion conveyed by the poem, quite the contrary, it adds subtlety and nuance. 

For separated lovers, longing is an omnipresent feeling that persists through time, bubbling beneath the surface even when focus is directed at more immediate concerns. Idleness in this instance leaves time for the consideration and expression of that longing, allowing for a shared moment of emotional connection despite the lovers being in “two scenes”, separated by thousands of miles. Idleness can be read therefore as a trigger for the expression of longing, which itself is unable to be dispelled, only concealed, transferred from one’s visage to one’s heart.

Idleness is a mood enhancer, much like wine (or indeed, for Chinese poets, the moon). Just as wine brings either rapturous happiness or tears, idleness could bring about a contemplative, meditative state, it could also draw melancholy into sharp focus when distractions fade. For ancient Chinese poets being idle was not just the absence of other commitments, but the presence of specific opportunities to muse, be it about metaphysical concerns, personal emotional matters, or even baseless bouts of sadness. Perhaps in this age of constant preoccupation and information overload, modern humans have a thing or two to learn from these ancient yet wise attitudes. 

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