Migrations of Memory

Peng Wei

Wild Geese Descend on Level Sand

Wild geese are migratory birds, flying thousands of miles from north to south. They were the subject of poems in the Wei and Jin dynasties (4th Century AD); ancient literati cited them as spiritual symbols of autumn scenery, denoting long journeys, parting, exile and reunion. In Chinese culture, wild geese implied brave, lofty ambitions and consistency of purpose. In the poem written by Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, wild geese also represent family, friendship, and letters between friends.

Writing his Mengxi Bitan (Dream Pool Essays) in the Song dynasty, Shen Kuo chose his eight most picturesque scenes of Xiaoxiang, a region located in modern-day Hunan Province, China. His evocation of wild geese descending on level sand is the most famous scene among the eight.

Ancient Chinese poets typically practised painting and music alongside writing.  Thus, the theme of wild geese descending on level sand would feature in all three: melody, poetry and art. The theme is not only visually symbolic, but also emotional. Chinese artists regard themselves as birds, of which wild geese are the most wide-ranging and poetic.