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The Body, Shadow and Soul 1

Tao, Yuan-ming (365-427 CE)

Prologue. It is a pity that noblemen, slaves, sages, and fools all strive to place value on their lives. Consequently, I try to show the sufferings of the body and shadow and describe how the soul teaches the body and shadow to let things take their own course. I hope that argumentative gentlemen may agree with my opinion.

I. The Body Offers His Advice to the Shadow 2

Heaven and earth endure forever;
Mountains and rivers never change.
Grass and trees follow the principles of nature.
Dew nourishes them and frost kills them.
Humans are the wisest among living beings.
However, suffering makes it worse to be a human than a plant.
One who lived a moment ago
Dies suddenly and will not return.
The world does not feel the shortage of one person.
Friends and relatives will move on with their lives,
But will feel sad when they see the departed's belongings.
I do not know how to become immortal
And will surely die the same way.
Please take my advice:
Do not refuse
When someone offers you wine.

II. The Shadow Responds to the Body's Advice 3

We cannot live forever.
It is difficult to stay in good health 4.
I wish to visit Hua-shan Mountain and Kun-lun-shan Mountain 5,
But they are remote and inaccessible.
Since we met,
We have laughed and cried together.
I will disappear temporarily if you rest in shade.
We will not part when you walk under the sun.
However, our partnership cannot last forever.
It is a pity that we will disappear simultaneously someday.
After a body dies, its fame is gone.
This thought agitates my feelings.
Good deeds may leave one's legacy to later generations.
Why don't you strive to perform good deeds while you live?
Drinking wine may dispel sorrow,
But pales in comparison with performing good deeds.

III. The Soul's Guidelines for Life 6

Nature is fair.
Everything prospers by itself.
I make human beings one of the Three Talents 7.
Though we are different,
We cling to one another.
Because we share sorrow and happiness together,
I must provide you guidelines for life.
Where are the Three Great Emperors 7 ?
Although Peng-zu lived more than eight hundred years,
He died at last.
No matter whether old or young, wise or foolish,
All have to die someday.
Drinking wine may dispel sorrow,
But it shortens one's life span.
Performing good deeds often makes one happy,
But who will praise you?
Worrying too much may damage one's health.
It is better to let things take their own course.
As one grows up and becomes old,
One should neither celebrate nor fear.
One must go when it is time
And should not worry too much about death.


1 The following audio file shows how the poem, "Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon" written by Bai Li (701-762), is sung. In Li's poem, the moon, Li, and his shadow have a good time together. In Tao's poem, the soul offers the body and shadow his advice that one should let things take their own course. Namely, one should follow the principles of nature. The moon represents nature.

2 This poem provides the body's opinion about life: Life is short; we should enjoy our lives to the utmost.

3 This poem provides the shadow's opinion about life: One can neither live forever nor become a god. It is better for one to perform good deeds in the sense that one's legacy prolongs one’s life.

4 Rong-zhu Nan asked Lao-zi (604-? BCE, the founder of Taoism; Er Li and Dan Li were Lao-zi's personal names) about how to stay in good health. Lao-zi replied, "Follow the principles of nature; have a vision; be serene, content and introspective; be carefree, broadminded, and naive like a baby; stroll aimlessly; live without being burdened by chores; adjust oneself to circumstances, and drift with the tide. These are ways to stay in good health."

5 The Story of Gods says, "Chi-song-zi was a rain conjurer during Emperor Shen-nong's reign. When Chi-song-zi stood in fire, he would not be burned. He visited Kun-lun-shan Mountain frequently, and stayed in the stone palace of the mother of the creator. He ascended or descended according to the direction of wind and rain. The daughter of Emperor Yan-di chased him and became a goddess." The same book also says, "Chi-fu concocted a pill of immortality with mercury. After he ate his pill with niter at the age of thirty, he became a child. His hair was red. Later, he went to Hua-shan Mountain and found a grain depot left from Emperor Yu's reign. During the following decades, he sold grain between Chang-wu County and the Xiang-jiang River." Thus, Chi-song-zi visited Kun-lun-shan Mountain; Chi-fu visited Hua-shan Mountain; both of them were gods. Here this line says that the shadow wishes to practice doctrine in order to become a god.

6 This poem provides the soul's guidelines: Even sages or long-lived people will die; drinking wine shortens one's life span; performing good deeds to seek fame may not be praised by later generations; it is better to let things take their own course without worrying about life or death.

7 The Three Talents are heaven, earth, and human beings.

8 "The Three Great Emperors" refers to Emperor Fu-xi, Emperor Shen-nong, and Emperor Huang-di (ca. 2690 BCE).