My Chinese Mudmen




Death brought to Life  –
here lies
the ambiguity

Wrought by ancient toil
hands in the dirt
my Men of Clay
contemplative figures
moulded figurines
idle idols
progenitors of
Gormley’s Field
still still
after all these years

The thoughts
of uncounted
peasant potters
death to life
life to death
the artisan’s role
a messy resurrection
now paraded
amongst my books
in my own milieu
a lesson
for my assimilation

Dead as the earth is dead
alive as the wet oriental soil
of their conception
the kiln heat
of their birth

Chilling sentiment
glazed eyes recalling
the potter’s hands
remembering the gnarled
and knotted tension
in their birth

The hope of yesterday
the stillness of today
The meaning of tomorrow



For many centuries Chinese artisans have created clay figurines to accompany their miniature bonsai gardens and aquaria. Such miniature landscape creations were known as Pen’Jing.  These artefacts were individually created by hand from local clays and fired with a low temperature lead glaze, usually in green, blue or yellow.  Faces, hands and feet were often left unglazed, allowing the natural colour of the mud to show.  Such small-scale figurines were generally termed Mudmen.  They were made in many village farming communities when,  following the rice harvest, and the onset of the dry season, locals turned to the production of figures using the local clay. They were often of standing or seated fishermen, mystics, musicians, occasionally women, sages and old wise men, holding books, axes, flutes, scrolls, pots, fish and other objects in common use often of some mystical importance.

Over subsequent years such objects became of importance, particularly following the European fashion of seeking out oriental pottery and sculptural artefacts.  The genuinely old and individually hand-made mudmen figurines are nowadays highly sought after and fetch high market prices.  In more recent years however, modern versions of these mudmen figurines, which most, if not all, of those in my photographs are, have been mass produced and are not of any great value.


The Patchwork Pachyderm


‘The Patchwork Pachyderm’ … Photoshopped Collage:  WHB – 2017



 Six blind old men went to a zoo
Which blind men do not often do.

They wished to find out more about
Their unknown world I have no doubt.

It was not easy so to do,
Especially at our London zoo.

They heard a creature give a bellow,
The trumpet call was hardly mellow.

They followed the sound until they came
To where were housed all the big game.

Determined to go where blind men go
They encountered a creature they did not know.

They ventured into the elephant’s lair,
Sensing this to be just where

They could discover just what it is
Makes this creature a walking quiz.

  *   *   *

 Tim fell against its side so tall,
Crying “This is a mighty wall”.

Jim touched its Tusk and gave a cry,
“It is a Spear I’ll not deny”.

Lim felt its trunk and began to quake,
“I’m pretty sure it is a snake”.

Dim touched a leg saying with glee,
“Well, this can only be a tree”.

Kim then reached up and touched an ear,
“This is a fan it is quite clear”.

Yim lifted the tail saying in hope,
“I’m almost sure this is a rope”.


They thought, each one, that they’d found out
Just what Jumbo was all about.

So I ask you please, whate’er you see,
You don’t need a first-class degree.

Just never get your logic mangled,
Make sure your view is multi-angled.



The story of the SIX BLIND MEN has its possible origins in India, but the same basic story has appeared with variations in many different cultures.  I first came across it in the Chinese version.  The story in essence tells of blind men who, never having been able to see an elephant, decided to use their sense of touch to discover what sort of a creature it was.  On doing so, each one pronounced on the basis of their own, very limited,view.  Because each man touched only one part of the elephant, and based their judgement on what they had found, each came up with a different version of what they considered the creature to be like. 


(‘Shiang’ or ‘Xiang’ … the Chinese pictogram for ‘elephant’)

So,  In turn, each blind man created his own version of reality from that limited experience and perspective. In philosophy departments throughout the world, the Blind Men and the Elephant has become the exemplar of moral relativism and religious tolerance.

So this ancient parable is used today as a warning for people that promote absolute truth or exclusive religious claims. It demonstrates that our sensory perceptions and life experiences can, if we are not careful, lead to a very limited understanding and interpretation of the nature of something or someone else.  With only a limited understanding of truth we can only receive a constrained version of reality.

There are several versions in poetic form of this story, to which I have added my own above, with the title ‘The Patchwork Pachyderm’ !


Carved wooden elephant … Photo – WHB – 2017


Tu Fu

Tu Fu ( or Du Fu), who was born in Gongyi in 712 A.D., was one of the foremost poets of the Chinese Tang dynasty. He and Li Bai, are normally thought of as the greatest of all Chinese poets. He died in Changsha, China, in 770 A.D.

I print below, two of his poems, both, as the majority of his poems,  exemplify his intense relationship with nature, wildlife, and with the seasons, even amidst the turmoil of the times in which he lived.

(Both designs are my own pen and wash drawings in an attempt at capturing a Chinese style.)  


A Spring View

Though a country be sundered, hills and rivers endure;
And spring comes green again to trees and grasses
Where petals have been shed like tears
And lonely birds have sung their grief.
… After the war-fires of three months,
One message from home is worth a ton of gold.
… I stroke my white hair. It has grown too thin
To hold the hairpins any more.

Chinese Script Scene1

A View of Taishan

What shall I say of the Great Peak? –
The ancient dukedoms are everywhere green,
Inspired and stirred by the breath of creation,
With the Twin Forces balancing day and night.
…I bare my breast toward opening clouds,
I strain my sight after birds flying home.
When shall I reach the top and hold
All mountains in a single glance?


LI PO – & ‘Sinological Sages’

It was disrespectful of me, but, many years ago, in my student days, and learning of Li Po’s fondness for wine and of the supposed manner of his death, I composed the following limerick . . .


Sinological sages have said,

That, whereas Li Po died in his bed,

‘Twas not from neuritis,

Nor cramp got by writers,

But mead that had gone to his head.

So now, to put the record straight, I am attempting a more respectful outline of this most distinguished of Chinese poets.

Li Po

Li Po  (often referred to as Li Po or Li Bai)

lived from approximately the year 700 until he died in 762 A.D. He is regarded as one of the greatest poets in China’s literary history.   He is as important in both the history and literature of China as Shakespeare is in the English-speaking world.  In his time he was a huge celebrity, renowned and honoured for his wisdom and for his poetic genius.

( May I point out  that this was approximately the same time as Caedmon, our first English poet (see my earlier blog on ‘Whitby’), and was almost a millennium before Shakespeare).

About 2000 of Li Po’s many poems were collected together in the year 1080.  They are remarkable for their musical quality, rich and exact imagery, and the beauty of their language. This blog does no more than present a brief outline of  his life and work and reproduces just a few of these poems in an attempt to whet the appetite for more.

From early times a thorough knowledge of the art of creating and reciting poetry as well as of its history was a required attribute of the educated Chinese ruling classes. Poets themselves were held in great esteem and were able to earn a living by practising their art in the households of the nobility.

LPo lived during the Tang Dynasty in the first half of the 8th century. He was one of the most celebrated poets of this, the golden age of Chinese poetry.

It is not easy to differentiate between truth and myth in the story of Li Po’s life. He was brought up in the west of China in Szechwan province, but at the age of 19 he left home and began his travels throughout China.

He is said to have met up with a Taoist scholar and to have become very much influenced by Taoist philosophy as his writing shows. From then on he seems to have spent his time writing poems and enjoying nature and the pleasures of wine.

His verses are the epitome of classical Chinese poetry. They follow Taoist principles and are generally simple and for their subject matter concentrate on the everyday features of a poet’s life. The patterns of nature repeat and the poet’s emotions range from joy to despair. His poems have a musical quality and are coloured with rich and exact imagery. They amply illustrate the Taoist pleasure derived from the awesome tranquillity of mountains and rivers.


Li Di – Mountain Landscape – c.1100

Li Po is said to have met his death, after a heavy bout of drinking, by attempting to embrace the reflection of the moon on the water. Many of his poems take the pleasures of wine as a theme and he often wrote about the moonlit world.

Selected Verses of LI PO

I have selected just five of Li Po’s shorter poems to illustrate his style and his themes.

Night Thoughts

I wake and moonbeams play around my bed
Glittering like hoarfrost to my wondering eyes
Upwards the glorious moon I raise my head
Then lay me down and thoughts of home arise
(Tr.By H.A.Giles)

Dialogue in the Mountains

You ask me why I lodge in these emerald hills;
I laugh, don’t answer – my heart is at peace.
Peach blossoms and flowing waters
go off to mysterious dark,
And there is another world,
not of mortal men.

Spring Night in Lo-yang Hearing a Flute

In what house, the jade flute that sends these dark notes drifting,
scattering on the spring wind that fills Lo-yang?
Tonight if we should hear the willow-breaking song,
who could help but long for the gardens of home?

Looking for a Monk and Not Finding Him

A poem by Li Po – translated by Rewi Alley
Source: Li Bai: 200 Poems, Hong Kong, 1980

I took a small path leading
up a hill valley, finding there
a temple, its gate covered
with moss, and in front of
the door but tracks of birds;
in the room of the old monk
no one was living, and I
staring through the window
saw but a hair duster hanging
on the wall, itself covered
with dust; emptily I sighed
thinking to go, but then
turning back several times,
seeing how the mist on
the hills was flying, and then
a light rain fell as if it
were flowers falling from
the sky, making a music of
its own; away in the distance
came the cry of a monkey, and
for me the cares of the world
slipped away, and I was filled
with the beauty around me.

Li PO-Wine Shop

Two good sources to discover and read more of Li Po’s verse can be found at:

For an excellent introduction to the long history and to the traditions and themes of Chinese Poetry I can recommend the following link:



That’s All, Folks !