What do those Chinese characters mean?
Though I do not mention it often, some of you may know that I call my “school” of hokku writing (the kind of hokku I teach and advocate) the “Mountain Water” school. And that is precisely what the two characters above mean. The first means “mountain” and the second “water.”
Why did I choose this name in English? I did so not only because I like it, but also because it is a way of recalling the very old heritage of the aesthetics embodied in the kind of hokku I teach, aesthetics which historically go back to old Japan and even to China centuries earlier.
The name “Mountain Water,” when seen in that long perspective, is very rich in meaning.
First, the combination of the two Chinese characters 山 水 (shān shuǐ) is the common term used for a landscape (as in landscape painting). A landscape painting in China commonly is a painting of mountains (山) and water (水).
By extension, 水 also means “river / rivers.” So when we think of a Chinese landscape painting, we generally think of mountains and streams, waterfalls, pools, lakes, or rivers. A secondary meaning of 山 水 is quite literally “mountain water,” that is, water of the mountains, like a spring bubbling up out of rocks in the hills. And that makes the meaning of my hokku school name even deeper, because mountain water is usually fresh, clear, and pure. That is how hokku should be. Though it is a centuries-old form of verse, hokku we write today should be fresh and clear, pure and simple.
But the meaning goes even deeper than that. You may recall that I have said one could call the kind of hokku I teach and advocate “Yin Yang” hokku, because of the importance of the two basic elements of Yin and Yang in writing and reading it. In a Chinese landscape, the mountains (山) rising into the sky exemplify the Yang element, and the waters (水) falling from the hills or lying in pools and streams are the Yin element. So the name “Mountain Water School” also signifies the importance of Yin and Yang in the hokku tradition, and in hokku as I teach it.
The Japanese hokku was very strongly influenced by the old literature of China, particularly the poetry of the Tang Dynasty. And though the hokku form developed in Japan, its aesthetics can be traced back many centuries in China. And do not forget that traditionally, hokku in Japan was written in a combination of borrowed Chinese characters and native Japanese phonetic symbols. Take for example the famous “Old Pond” hokku of Bashô. Of the 11 symbols in which it is written, seven are Chinese, and only four are Japanese phonetic symbols.
You will recall that the verse is:
The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.
The word for water here (水) is the same character used to write “Mountain Water.” It is pronounced mizu in the case of Bashô’s verse, and in other cases sui, which pronunciation is also borrowed from Chinese.
So now you know the origin of the name for the kind of hokku I teach — the “Mountain Water” school of hokku.
As an aside, if you are familiar with Japanese ink painting (which was borrowed from the Chinese), you may have heard it called suiboku. Here is that term as printed:
The first character, as you now know, is 水, “water” ( with the sui pronunciation in Japanese); the second character, 墨, pronounced boku in Japanese, is the Chinese character meaning “black ink.” So a suiboku-ga is literally a ” water-black ink” painting. And anyone who has ever practiced that art or watched it, knows that is precisely what it is — a painting done in ink made by grinding a black ink stick in water on an inkstone.