A look at Homesickness in China’s “Autumn Thoughts”

Homesickness is a common theme in classical Chinese poetry, and with a little historical context it is not hard to imagine why that was the case. For centuries China was a vast empire spanning much of East Asia, and before the advent of modern modes of transportation, it could take months or even years for someone to travel to another province and back. With no reliable means of communicating with their loved ones back home, these travelers, many of whom were scholars or literate officials, often turned to poetry to express longing for their homes and families.

A classic example of a poem expressing feelings of homesickness is “Autumn Thoughts” by Yuan dynasty poet Ma Zhiyuan:

A withered vine, an old tree, a crow at dusk

A small bridge, a flowing stream, a home

An ancient path, the west wind, an emaciated horse

The sun sets in the west; the heartbroken man is at the horizon.

Like much of classical Chinese poetry, the poem is succinct yet extremely evocative. The first three lines each list a series of images. In the opening line, the images are of death in nature, with the vine and tree being literal representations of that theme, and the crow, a common symbol of death and decay, relating to it metaphorically. This first line sets a somber mood for poem, which initially seems to be contradicted by the following line that describes a cozy, picturesque home next to the stream across from a small bridge. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the home does not belong to the narrator of the poem when he shows up in the third line as a weary traveler. He is shivering in the wind as he rides along an old, trodden path on an emaciated horse – but it is important to note that that is an image we as readers construct in our heads, as the line itself only supplies the details of the path, the wind and the horse without actually introducing the central figure that unites all of these details. He ultimately does appear, however, in the final line, in which he is literally riding off into the sunset, heartbroken at the distance that separates himself, having travelled far and reached the horizon, from the home that he has left behind.

Reading Ma’s poem, I am reminded of Robert Frosts’ famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Frost’s poem contains much of the same imagery that we see in Ma’s “Autumn Thoughts,” including an image of someone else’s home in the opening lines, and the figure of the narrator as a traveler riding on a horse in the second stanza. In addition, both poets use the environment to create a somber mood, although they do so in slightly different ways: while Ma’s withered vines and old trees paint a sad autumn scene, Frost situates his poem in “the darkest evening of the year,” and creates a winter environment complete with falling snow and a frozen lake. Perhaps the most striking similarity between the two poems is in the endings: like Ma, Frost invokes a sense of distance in his closing lines, with the narrator reiterating that he has “[…] miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” Despite these similarities, there is nothing to suggest that Frost was influenced by Ma, or had even read Ma’s poem. Thus, the fact that the two poets were able to create two poems that are so similar in a number of ways (but at the same time, of course, each unique in its own right) can be seen as a testament to the universality of their themes and images.

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