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. 

人间有味是清欢 Flavor of Life

What’s your favorite food?”

That’s hard to say, but something that I will never get tired of is porridge.” I replied.

But it has no flavor!”

“Plainness is a flavor in itself.”

Now I will stop being a philosophical hypocrite and admit that I also strongly favor spicy food and used to hate porridge myself. Until? Perhaps until plain porridge became a less readily accessible taste of hometown (usually not served at restaurants abroad because..well, it has no flavor). Or perhaps until the day I read a poem by Su Shi.




To the Tune of Huàn Xī Shā

Fine rain and slanted wind on a crisp dawn,

before sunshine brightens the river shore,

scattered willows are shrouded by light fog.

Look, the incoming spring

rises up in its flow.

Foams of snow and flowers of milk,

floating atop my tea cup by noon;

as we taste the spring plates filled

with greens and shoots freshly grown.

Where there be flavor thus simple,

true content of life is shown.

This poem depicts the poet’s day trip into the mountain with his friends in early spring. To ensure the smoothness of reading, I did not translate after the original character order or grammatical structure in Chinese, nor was I able to fully account for the nuances and literary context of all the fine expressions. But worry not! We shall now take a closer look.

As I envision myself in this poem, I see traditional ink paintings with light strokes in water color. No extravagance, everything is soft, casual and almost unintentional. The fine rain are carried and tilted by the light breeze, enclosing the world in refreshing moist as they fall. The chill of a dawn in early spring, no longer the bitter coldness of winter. An omnipresent whisper, seeping into one’s breath and clothes with silky threads of rain.

What else does the poet put in this paint of early spring? No dense flowers, crowds or laughters. Simply a few scattered willows on the sun-lit river shore. Not only that, we only see them through a layer of light fog. Picture in your mind the willow shoots of early spring. Looking up close, we see not yet the new leaves. Looking from afar, nevertheless, the twigs themselves have a tender greenness from within. Now, the golden sunlight shines through the hazy fog of morning rain, and a faint stroke of greenness brightens the river shore.

How does Su Shi describe this picture? “媚”. As an adjective, it means “charming, bright, cute”. As a verb, it is “to appreciate, to love”. A lively picture, an appreciative mind.

Fine rain, soft breeze, light fog, shimmering sunshine, scattered willow…charming, tranquil, yet perhaps a bit still? As a final stroke to the picture, Su Shi adds the spring. Every spring, as snow melts, fresh spring from the mountain, named Luo Spring, would flow into the River of Huai. As more and more spring joins, the river of Huai awakens, flows and swells. The picture is no longer quiet, we now hear the spring river singing the song of life.

Now we come to the second half of the poem, where Su Shi describes the picnic with his friends at noon . Snow foam and milk flower floating in cup…what exactly was he drinking? The answer is tea. Today, in mentioning good tea, we think of the extended loose leaf and clear, transparent liquid in delicate cups. Keep in mind, however, that this poem was written in Song Dynasty — a thousand years ago. Back then, tea was brewed with tea powder, quite like matcha in today’s Japan. According to a record at the time, 《侯鲭录》(‘The Record of HouJing’): “Tea is to be the opposite of ink, good tea ought to be white, and good ink black.” (“茶与墨正相反,茶欲白,墨欲黑”)Su Shi describes the foam on their brewed tea to be white as snow, rich and thick as blooming flowers made of milk. How fresh, pleasant it must have been!

What refreshments accompanied such good tea? The Spring Plate. In ancient times, to celebrate the first day of spring, people put seasonal vegetables and fruits in a plate, the Spring Plate, to share with friends. In their picnic, Su Shi and his friends try out the spring plates with fresh buckwheat shoot and bamboo shoot in them.

As an agriculture-based civilization, traditional Chinese values the synchronization with nature in all aspects of life. For instance, one should “get up as the sun rises and rest at sunset” — “日出而作,日落而息”. (Yes I do feel a bit guilty for my disoriented circadian cycle…) The same principle applies to cuisine, it is believed that one should eat fresh, seasonal food whenever possible.

In the poem, Su Shi and his friends not only enjoy a pure taste of spring from the fresh vegetable shoots, but also derives greater joy in following and being a part of the rhythm of nature.

Of flavors in life, there could be the strong, the ardent, the bustling, the prosperous; like the cracking oil on blazing fire, or the shiny brocade adorned with blooming flowers.

Or, there could be the light, the moderate, the simple, the ordinary; like the fine rain, the soft breeze, the light fog, the scattered willows, the flowing spring, the white tea, the fresh shoots…

As Su Shi puts it, of all flavors, joys, experiences in the Realm of Men, one eventually returns to the long-lasting content in the ordinary day-to-day life. A picnic in early spring with tea and salad. What could be simpler? Should we examine our life as Su Shi does in this poem, every detail can be a source of joy, plainness is the flavor of content.

Perhaps years later, I will remember this summer of 2020. Sitting at this wooden table by myself, watching the silhouette of the Tower in the setting sun, tasting the porridge I cooked with barley and golden rice, and listening the cicadas’ first evening song. On a campus so out-worldly, in a silence so rare.

夜行黄沙道中 A Walk at Night





— 辛弃疾 《西江月 · 夜行黄沙道中》To the Tune of Xī Jiānɡ Yuè by Xin QiJi

Grammatically, there is no strict tense in Chinese. Borrowing some tense structure from English, I would claim this poem an eternal present-continuous. Whenever it appears in my mind, it draws me into an evening walk with the poet. Although I am not physically there, Mr. Poet is telling me in real time what he sees, smells, feels, and hears. Now, press the play button and off we go:

Perfect background audio for this post, uploaded by The Guild of Ambiance

empty line


Bright moon, flickering twig, magpie startled;

Chill breeze, mid-night, cicadas buzzle.

“The moon is bright, I see a twig flickering — ah, it must be a magpie startled by the moonlight. I feel a chill breeze in the middle of the night, the breeze wakes the cicadas and accompanies their buzzes. “


In the fragrance of paddy flowers, speaking of a harvest year;

Listen, a field full of frog croaks.

“You wonder: who is speaking of the coming harvest of this year? I do not know, perhaps I am walking by some villagers chatting in the field, perhaps I am talking about the harvest to someone, perhaps the fragrant paddy is telling us of its forthcoming ripe. We sit patiently, listening to the frog’s song of summer, savoring our hope for a fruitful autumn.”


Seven to eight, grains of stars, the sky beyond;

Two to three, drops of rain, the mountains in front.

“One moment, my mind flies beyond the domes of sky to the stars. The next moment, raindrops bring me back to the mountains I walk upon. One moment, the stars flicker, the next moment, the rain drizzles. So random, casual, unintentional. As I walk, I let my consciousness travel. “


The cottage of old times, by the forest it is near;

Turning at the brook’s bridge, and suddenly they appear.

“Perhaps my walk does lead to somewhere. If I recall correctly, there should be a cottage around here. I know it is built by the woods, but where is it? It must be very close….ah, here it is! A surprise amid expectation, what a pleasant encounter! “

This poem creates within my mind a flowing state of wander and relaxation; a state of extending my senses toward all nuances in my environment; a state of concentration and content with the present; a state of hopeful yet patient expectation for the future.

A Leisurely Prelude

Tired of being stuck at home?

Puppies Playing beside a Palm Tree and Garden Rock, by Unidentified Artist in 15th century (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections)

“There’s nothing new happening”, “Every day feels the same”, “I feel rotten and unproductive”, “Agitated yet procrastinating, cannot bring myself to do anything yet tired of doing nothing”.

Yes, for those of us who are too used to a vibrant campus/workplace where a hundred things happen every day, the monotonous, uneventful life under quarantine can turn out poisonous to some extent.

Say, what was the last time you had such a long period of unstructured leisure (in case you are not familiar with it, the word ‘leisure’ approximately means ’empty google calendar’)? It sounds almost ridiculous, but think about it: how often do we, in today’s society, live with absolute leisure? We may be a bunch of expert planners, but when it comes to “dealing with” leisure, we are ignorant as kids (Ah but no! Just the opposite! Ignorant as Grown-ups!)

Therefore, in this series, I will share with you a few of my favorite Poems of Leisure–an actual category in Chinese poetry, in fact. These poems have enabled me to enjoy and (faintly) appreciate shelter-in-place much more than I otherwise would.

The sun slowly slides down, the wind sways the leaves and their shadows, the air smells like grass and green tea and some flower I don’t know, my mind swims in lines of poetry, my fingers types out this very word, I feel… I wish you could feel something similar as you read on…