Yuhua Palace, 玉華宮

A winding stream, the smell of pine in the wind,
A gray rat flees under ancient tiles.
I don’t know whose royal palace is this,
Mislaid beneath steep cliffs.

In dark rooms ghostly fires glow green,
A sorrowful stream flows over a broken path.
A million sounds from the earth are the true flutes and reeds
Autumn is sprinkled in colors positively sad.

Palace beauties have turned into yellow dust,
And what’s more, scattered are their powders and paints.
Where once they awaited a glorious golden chariot,
Now, of those things, only the stone horse remains.

Cares come, and to the grass I sink,
Singing loudly, while tears fill my hands.
On and on, a traveler slowly on his way
But who is he who lives forever?

Shaanxi

What

Du Fu’s Yuhua Palace is an example of huaigu 懷古, a reflection on things past, a type of nostalgia recognizing the transitory nature of all things. Death comes to us all. Palace beauties turn into dust, and of golden chariots, only the statues of horse remain. The Roman and Latin equivalent is Sic transit gloria mundi, Thus passes the glory of the world.

When

The generally accepted date for this poem is 757. If correct, then it was written during the An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763), after the fall of the capital of Chang’an, when all of China was in chaos. If we attempt to be more specific with the date, it may have been written during that period of time when Du Fu was granted leave by the Imperial court in exile to visit his family. Du Fu would continue to write poems in the Qiang Village where his family waited out the rebellion.

Where

Yuhua Palace, in far western Shaanxi province, built in 647 by Emperor Taizong as a Summer Palace. In 651, it was converted into a temple where the Buddhist master Xuanzang (602-664) lived and died, working on translating Indian Buddhist texts.

Shaanxi province on the edge of the Huangtu Plateau (literally, Yellow Earth plateau), is the location of the terra cotta army that contains vast numbers of statues of soldier and horses. .

Notes on translating Yuhua Palace

The first four lines seem straight forward. Du Fu approaches the ruins of the ancient palace walking along a meandering stream. In the air is the wind blown scent of pine trees, 松 風, sōng fēng, literally pine and wind, wind in the pines, or, as I prefer, the scent of pine in the wind. The palace is empty, save the gray rats that scurry in the ruins.

In the fifth line, Du Fu makes reference to a green ghostly fire, 鬼 火, guǐ huǒ. This may refer to the phosphorescence sometimes seen in caves or more likely to sighting the will o wisp, an atmospheric ghostly light travelers often see at night in marshy areas. Du Fu then refers to a myriad of natural vents in the earth that emit a sound similar to two types of Chinese flutes, and 竽, shēng and .

In line nine, Du Fu remarks that the palace beauties have all turned to yellow dust, 黃土, huángtǔ, literally yellow earth . This is a popular Chinese belief that the Yellow Earth is made up of the Chinese people. The historic northern boundary of China is the Yellow River, 黄河, Huáng Hé.

Again, in line 9, Du Fu uses the Chinese characters 美人, měi rén, which should be translated as a lady or as a consort. Such ladies would be escorted about the area in a golden chariot drawn by horses. Now, the ladies are gone, turned to yellow dust, the wooden chariots gone, and the only thing remaining, are the famous statues of terra cotta horses.

In the last four lines, Du Fu becomes thoughtful. Overcome with sorrow, he sinks to the ground, and begins to sing loudly, we assume using a Buddhist chant, tears welling up in his eyes, his hands clasped together in prayer.

Then, Du Fu acknowledges that he too is a lonely traveler, and that life is transitory.

Chinese text

玉華宮

溪回松風長
蒼鼠竄古瓦
不知何王殿
遺構絕壁下

陰房鬼火青
壞道哀湍瀉
萬籟真笙竽
秋色正蕭灑

美人為黃土
況乃粉黛假
當時侍金輿
故物獨石馬


憂來藉草坐
浩歌淚盈把
冉冉征途間
誰是長年者

The Ballad of War Carts (兵車行), Du Fu

A constant rumble of war carts
And never ending horse whinnies
Soldiers with bows at their waists
Fathers and mothers, wives and children rushing to see them
In the dust and dirt one cannot see Xianyang bridge
Pulling clothes, stamping feet, blocking the way and weeping
The sound of weeping rising above to heaven
Along the wayside a passerby asks a soldier
The soldier’s simply replies, we are called up often
Some of us, at fifteen, were sent north to guard the river
And then, til forty, went west to farm for the army
Each time we left, the village head wrapped our heads in cloth
Coming back our hair was white, still we manned the borders
At the border outpost, the flow of blood fed the ocean waters
Emperor Wu’s desire to conquer more had not yet ceased
Sir, have you not heard, that in the Han empire there are 200 prefectures east of the mountains
And now a thousand villages and ten thousand hamlets are overgrown with briars and thorns
And even there are women healthy enough to plow
The crops planted in the fields are in disorder
Since the dynasty of Qin, how can a soldier endure such bitter warfare
Driven on, no different than like dogs or chickens
You sir may ask
But a soldier dare not state his resentment
For example, this winter
At Guanxi, soldiers have not yet been relieved
While county tax officials seek new taxes
But where will these taxes come from?
It’s true, I know, to bear a son is bad
Bearing a daughter, I can marry her to a neighbor
Bearing a son, he will be buried in the midst of a hundred grasses
Sir, have you not seen the shores of Lake Qinghai
Where white bones lie and no man comes to collect them
Where new ghosts are troubled by the cries of the old
The sky is gray, it rains, it’s wet, and all about, the sound of constant wailing

terra cotta soldiers
Terra-cotta soldiers of Qin dynasty

The history behind Du Fu’s Ballad of War Carts

This rather long poem by Du Fu tells the story of the common peasant who is conscripted into the Chinese army and sent away for years to serve the emperor. Wisely, Du Fu has chosen to place this story in the Han dynasty during the 54 year reign of Emperor Wu, 武皇 (157 BC – 87 BC). It was a time of expansion to the west, the north, the south, and into the Korean peninsula. Obviously, this increased the prestige and power of Emperor Wu, but only at the expense of the peasant who was conscripted for years on end, and saw his land ruined by taxes and neglect.

Place Names

The River, line 10, (河, hé) the Yellow River (huáng hé 黄河), considered the cradle of Chinese civilization.

Xianyang and Xianyang bridge in line five refers to the city of Xianyang, the capital of the Qin dynasty that preceded the Han dynasty. In 1974 farmers digging wells east of Xianyang, found a buried vault containing a terra-cotta army of life-size figures, including warriors, horses, and wooden chariots. The mention of 200 prefectures east of the mountains refers to the fact that the majority of Han Chinese lived east of the capital.

In 2012, the 2,000 year old remains of the largest wooden bridge in the world was discovered at ancient Xianyang. This may have been the bridge that Du Fu refers to (China People’s Daily, July 30, 2012).

Han and Qin Dynasty – The Han dynasty was China’s second imperial dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), preceded by the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). Much like the Tang dynasty, the four centuries of the Han emperors was considered a Golden Age in China.

Guanxi (關西) – the area west of Hangu Pass, separating the upper Yellow River and Wei River valleys. I was the site of many battles, thus the earlier reference to blood that flows into the ocean.

Lake Qinghai (青海) – a shallow alkaline lake on the Tibetan plateau. The province of Qinhai is the source of the Yellow River. During the Tang dynasty an area contested by Tibetan and Chinese forces. Alkaline lakes bleach bones white.

Terra-cotta army Xianyang

Pinyin and original Chinese

車轔轔
馬蕭蕭
行人弓箭各在腰
爺孃妻子走相送
塵埃不見咸陽橋
牽衣頓足攔道哭
哭聲直上干雲霄
道旁過者問行人
 行人但云點行頻
 或從十五北防河
便至四十西營田
 去時里正與裹頭
 歸來頭白還戍邊
邊亭流血成海水
武皇開邊意未已
君不聞漢家山東二百州
千村萬落生荊杞
縱有健婦把鋤犁
禾生隴畝無東西
況復秦兵耐苦戰
被驅不異犬與雞
長者雖有問
役夫敢申恨
且如今年冬
 未休關西卒
縣官急索租
租稅從何出
信知生男惡
生女猶得嫁比鄰
生男埋沒隨百草
君不見青海頭
古來白骨無人收
新鬼煩冤舊鬼哭
天陰雨濕聲啾啾

chē lín lín

mǎ xiāo xiāo

xíng rén gōng jiàn gè zài yāo

yè niáng qī zǐ zǒu xiāng song

chén āi bú jiàn xiān yáng qiáo

qiān yī dùn zú lán dào kū

kū shēng zhí shàng gān yún xiāo

dào páng guò zhě wèn xíng rén

xíng rén dàn yún diǎn xíng pín

huò cóng shí wǔ běi fāng hé

biàn zhì sì shí xī yīng tián

qù shí lǐ zhèng yǔ guǒ tóu

guī lái tóu bái hái shù biān

biān tíng liú xuě chéng hǎi shuǐ

wǔ huáng kāi biān yì wèi yǐ

jūn bù wén hàn jiā shān dōng ér bǎi zhōu

qiān cūn wàn luò shēng jīng qǐ

zòng yǒu jiàn fù bǎ chú lí

hé shēng lǒng mǔ wú dōng xī

kuàng fù qín bīng nài kǔ zhàn

bèi qū búyì quǎn yǔ jī

zhǎng zhě suí yǒu wèn

yì fū gǎn shēn hèn

qiě rú jīn nián dōng

wèi xiū guānxī zú

xiàn guān jí suǒ zū

zū shuì cóng hé chū

xìn zhī shēng nán è

shēng nǚ yóu dé jià bǐ lín

shēng nán mái mò suí bǎi cǎo

jūn bú jiàn qīnghǎi tóu

gǔ lái bái gǔ wú rén shōu

xīn guǐ fán yuān jiú guǐ kū tiān yīn yǔ shī shēng jiū

Notes on translating the Title

Every translator takes some liberties with translation. I have done so with the title, Ballad of War Darts. Du Fu’s original title, 兵車行, Bīng chē xíng, obviously rhymes. The first two characters, 兵車 are a compound which in modern parlance translates to an armored personnel carrier, but in the era of the Tang dynasty, a war cart, pulled by horses, transporting supplies. To this Du Fu adds the character , xíng, which does not mean ballad as many translators choose. Actually, it is a verb meaning go.

For this reason, one could choose the title, As War Carts Go, and remain closer to the Du Fu’s original meaning.

Taking down a trellis – Du Fu

Taking down a trellis

Already, the sticks I tied are withered and falling,
The calabash leaves are thin and sparse.

Luckily the white flowers have born their fruit,
And peacefully the green leaves have faded.

Autumn insects speak not a sound,
What’s must sparrows think at dusk?
For bitter cold is now our prison;
So, Life too has such beginnings.

gourd and leaves

Autumn 759, Tang dynasty

The Tang Dynasty lasted from 618 to 907. This is often referred to as the golden age of Chinese history. This prosperous time was interrupted by the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) which caused the capital of Chang’an to fall, the emperor to flee to the south, along with massive human casualties before the succeeding emperor Suzong began the process of reestablishing imperial rule.

The poet Du Fu suffered throughout the rebellion, though he realized that his troubles were little when compared to the peasant. He escaped the capital and made his way to the imperial court in exile. In 757, he was given leave to visit his family in a Qiang village Du Fu had placed his family for safety. There he wrote three poems title Qiang Village 1, 2, and 3.

Late in 757, Du Fu returned to Chang’an along with the imperial court . He was then given a position of some importance, but this lasted only until the summer as Du Fu was one who spoke freely, and sound advice is not always well taken. Thus, Du Fu was relegated to remote Huazhou where he was made Commissioner of Education, a post not to his liking.

Qiang Village

In the spring or summer of 759, Du Fu moved on to Qinzhou (Tianshui, Gansu province), west of the capital of Chang’an, where he wrote more than sixty poems including the one above. In a way this has brought Du Fu full circle to the Qiang village where his family had sought safety during the worst of the An Lushan rebellion.

Poem’s meaning

The poem Taking down the Trellis is best understood by a gardener who sees and understands the cycle of life. The trellis refers three or more staked sticks, the technique of raising the vines off the ground so that insects and ground animals will not eat the fruit.

Du Fu picked the calabash 瓠 to grow on the trellis. The calabash is a traditional Chinese vegetable consumed when young and used as utensils when mature. The gourd being smaller than a pumpkin is lighter and the vine can grow in a pot or staked to sticks tied together to save space.

Pinyin and Chinese

chú jià

shù xīn yǐ líng luò
hù yè zhuǎn xiāo shū
xìng jiē bái huā liǎo
nìng cí qīng màn chú


qiū chóng shēng bú qù
mù què yì hé rú
hán shì jīn láo luò
rén shēng yì yǒu chū

除架

束薪已零落
瓠叶转萧疏
幸结白花了
宁辞青蔓除


秋虫声不去
暮雀意何如
寒事今牢落
人生亦有初

Notes on translation

除架, chú jià, the title, literally means removing the frame, or in this case the sticks that hold up the vine, poetically, taking down the trellis. 寒事, Hán shì, this “cold thing” I translate to bitter cold, also may refers to the Han dynasty, an earlier dynasty of four centuries that also succumbed. 牢落, láo luò, seems to have two meanings, “prison” and “fasten”; 落 luò, maning leaving behind, suggesting the idea of leaving our earthly world (prison) behind.

人生 rén shēng means life, one’s time on earth.

Qiang people

The Qiang 羌 people (the Chinese character 羌 is itself a combination of sheep 羊 and a man 人) is an ancient term for pastoral nomads who lived in the west on the border with Tibet. This would have given Du Fu an affinity for the people based on his own itinerant life.

New Years Eve – Cui Tu

[This is a revision of an earlier translation in December of 2017.]

Increasingly remote are the three roads to ancient Ba
Dangerous and strange for one who has traveled ten thousand li.
At night, in the midst of the jagged snowy mountains,
A lonely man is isolated and faraway from kin.

(A lonely man so different from the Xiang people)
Gradually, grows distant from his blood relations;
Time and time again, growing closer to his servants.
How, I dread to drift so far when
Tomorrow, the new year comes.

Cui Tu

Little is known of the Chinese poet Cui Tu other than his date of birth – 854, and the fact that only two of his poems are included in the Anthology of 300 Tang Poems, a book which was first compiled in 1763.

We do know that the Tang dynasty collapsed in 907. We are also aware of a rebellion lasting a decade (874–884) that resulted in the sacking of both capitals at Chang’an and Luoyang.

Needless to say, the times were turbulent. Cui Tu was possibly fleeing for his life to the relative security of mountainous Sichuan. Something, the imperial court did in times of danger. The mention of Ba in the first line, and the prefix of three, (Sanba 三巴 ) is throwback to the ancient State of Ba, which was located in eastern Sichuan. The literal meaning of ba is to cling, which describes the position of the dynasty at that time in history.

I have given an alternate translation to line four since Xiang may also refer to the Xiang people.

Piāobó, in line seven is interesting as it suggests that Cui Tu will take on the life of a wanderer, drifting from here to there.

What will the New Year Bring?

Good question. Since the Tang dynasty was on its last legs, the answer is likely, not much.

New Year’s Eve is all about ringing out the old and ringing in the new, or, if you like, bringing in the new, throwing out the old. Old friends die, we make new friends, and Cui Tu must of found himself clinging to his servants not only to survive, but for comfort.

Original Chinese and Pinyin

Tiáo dì sān bā lù,
jī wēi wànlǐ shēn
luàn shān cánxuě yè

gūdú yì xiāng rén
jiàn yǔ gǔròu yuǎn
zhuǎn yú tóngpú qīn
nà kān zhǐ piāobó
míngrì suì huá xīn

迢遞三巴路
羈危萬里身
亂山殘雪夜
孤獨異鄕人
漸與骨肉遠
轉於僮僕親
那堪止漂泊
明日歲華新

Qiang Village 2 – Du Fu

An old man marking time,
Returning home, his joys are few.
My darling son clutches my knee,
Dreading that I will leave again.
I remember when we sought out cool spots,
And walked among the trees beside the pool.
Now, the North Wind’s whistling is strong,
And I’ve a hundred different worries.
At least, I know, the wheat harvest goes well,
Already, I catch the drip of the mash-press
For now, there is enough to fill my cup,
Comfort for one near the end.

china mountains river

May you live in interesting times

There is an apocryphal quote attributed to the ancient Chinese that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” The quote was intended as a curse, predicting and hoping that one’s wish for excitement will be of the worst kind.

This curse explains the life of Du Fu at the time of Tang China’s An Lushan Rebellion.

For a period of eight years beginning in 755, China experienced the horror of war and famine the likes of which it had not experienced before on such a massive scale. Barbarians invaded from the north, the emperor fled, the capital fell, the dynasty teetered on the edge of collapse, the peasant caught in the middle of the conflict starved or was impressed into the war, the outcome was always in doubt. If we take the census records as an accounting of the damage done, then China lost more than half its population in the span of these terrible 8 years.

Du Fu in a time of war

Du Fu was an accomplished poet and mediocre civil servant, as his head-strong ways often rubbed administrators and the emperor the wrong way. Nevertheless he was tolerated for his great poetic abilities. When the capital of Chang’an fell, Du Fu had been away. Asa precaution, he took his family to a Qiang village where his newborn son died, then attempted to join the court of the new emperor, but he was captured by the rebels and taken to Chang’an. He escaped after several months and made his way to the court in exile in Sichuan.

That fall the Imperial Court gave him leave to visit his family, which is the source of the three poems entitled Qiang Village.

If the first poem was about the surprise of one finding his way home and the joy felt at homecoming, then the second is about the fleeting nature of that joy. We enjoy what little comfort we can find while living in such interesting times.

At the end of his life, Du Fu was the proverbial peripatetic poet. He died in 768, five years after the rebellion was put down. At the time he was living in Hunan Province. He was survived by his wife and two remaining sons.

Pinyin and Chinese

qiāng cūn ( èr)

wǎn suì pò tōu shēng
huán jiā shǎo huān qù
jiāo ér bù lí xī
wèi wǒ fù què qù
yì xī hǎo zhuī liáng
gù rào chí biān shù
xiāo xiāo běi fēng jìn
fǔ shì jiān bǎi lǜ
lài zhī hé shǔ shōu
yǐ jué zāo chuáng zhù
rú jīn zú zhēn zhuó
qiě yòng wèi chí mù

羌村 (二)

晚岁迫偷生
还家少欢趣
娇儿不离膝
畏我复却去
忆昔好追凉
故绕池边树
萧萧北风劲
抚事煎百虑
赖知禾黍收
已觉糟床注
如今足斟酌
且用慰迟暮

Qiang Village 1 – Du Fu

Above the lofty mountains the western sky is red,
Below, the sun sets on the peaceful valley.
A sparrow chirps at the wicker gate,
I return from a trip of a thousand li.
My wife and children shocked to see me,
Then calm themselves and wipe their tears.
I drifted through this disordered life and,
By chance I have survived its ordeal.
The neighbors lean over the wall and,
They too cry and weep.
Late at night we bring out flickering candles and,
Face each other like in a dream.

sunset mountains

This is the first poem in a series of three written by Du Fu (杜甫) at the age of 45. The poems were written in 757 in a Qiang village (羌村) where Du Fu had taken his family as a place of refuge during the troubles of the An Lushan Rebellion.



Tang China 757

Under threat by the rebellious General An Lushan in 756, the Imperial court fled the capital of Chang’an for Sichuan. In January of 757 AD, An Lushan was killed by his own son An Qingxu. At the fortress of Suiyang, the Tang forces fought to the death. Though the rebels won, the tide had turned in the war against the rebels.

Du Fu like other poets of the period was caught up in the troubles of the An Lushan Rebellion. At the time the rebels captured Chang’an, Du Fu had luckily been away, but he was subsequently captured and taken to the rebel held Chang’an. In 757, he escaped and made his way south to the court in exile. In September he was granted leave to see his family and his new son, Du Zongwu (Baby Bear).

Qiang Village

Du Fu does not identify the Qiang village where his family lived. The Qiang people (羌族) generally refers to a small ethnic minority that lived in a mountainous region in northwestern Sichuan at the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

“Above the lofty mountains the western sky is red.” To the common people, red symbolizes good fortune and, it is believed, red lanterns ward off evil. Thus, our tiny Qiang village has the good fortune of being far from the war, but, as we shall see in poem 2, also suffers pain that accompanies war.

Chinese and Pinyin


qiāng cūn (yī)

zhēng róng chì yún xī
rì jiǎo xià píng dì
chái mén niǎo què zào
guī kè qiān lǐ zhì
qī nú guài wǒ zài
jīng dìng hái shì lèi
shì luàn zāo piāo dàng
shēng huán ǒu rán suì
lín rén mǎn qiáng tóu
gǎn tàn yì xū xī
yè lán gèng bǐng zhú
xiāng duì rú mèng mèi

羌村 (一)

峥嵘赤云西
日脚下平地
柴门鸟雀噪
归客千里至
妻孥怪我在
惊定还拭泪
世乱遭飘荡
生还偶然遂
邻人满墙头
感叹亦歔欷
夜阑更秉烛
相对如梦寐

Li Shen – Pity the Farmers

Pity the Farmer, Air 1

A single grain of wheat sewn in spring
By autumn ten thousand brings
If in all the world no field lies fallow
Why then are hungry peasants dying

Pity the Farmer, Air 2

Hoeing grain at noon
Sweat dripping on the soil
Who knows, the food you eat
Grain by grain, is hard and bitter?

Pity the Farmers 悯 农

This post is a rewrite of Li Shen’s well-known poem about the plight of the Chinese farmer in the Tang dynasty.

Li wrote two poems on the subject of the Chinese farmer, for convenience sake, referred to as Ancient Airs 1 and 2. The second poem is often recited by children in their school cafeteria.

Li Shen 李紳

Li Shen (李紳, 772?-846) lived in the troubled decades following the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763). Even though the rebels were defeated, the damage to the countryside had been done, and there was no peace. Regional warlords rose up and court conspiracies challenged the emperor for control.

Mǐn nóng (Pity the peasant )” was heard throughout the land.

Li had a long and distinguished career in the Imperial court, serving five different emperors, being made governor of various regions. In 837, while he was military governor of Xuanwu Circuit (in modern Henan province) China suffered a widespread locust infestation which somehow avoided his district. He was later appointed chancellor to the Emperor Wuzong.

In 844 he suffered a stroke and resigned.

Notes on translation

Zhǒng 種 in the first poem means seed, and 禾 in the second, to cereal grain in general. Although Westerners jump to the conclusion that all Chinese eat rice ( 米), actually it is noodles (wheat, 稞) in the north, and rice in the south. The fact that the farmers are hoeing suggests wheat.

Nóngfū 農夫 in the first poem meaning peasant, but also peasant farmer. The second poem is a children’s riddle. Some translators add farmer to the first line, but the poem simply starts with “Hoeing grain at noon,” building clue upon clue, until the child realizes the work and toil that goes into a plate of food.
粒, the double lì lì, means grain by grain, each grain…
xīnkǔ 辛苦, separately, xīn meaning hard, implying with much suffering, and , bitter, together meaning, with much toil

Chinese and Pinying #1

Chūn zhǒng yī lì sù
qiūshōu wàn kē zi
sìhǎi wú xián tián
nóngfū yóu èsǐ

春種一粒粟
秋收萬顆子
四海無閑田
農夫猶餓死

Chinese and Pinyin #2

Chú hé yuē dāng wǔ
hàn dī hé xià tǔ
shéi zhī pán zhōngcān
lì lì jiē xīnkǔ

锄禾曰当午
汗滴禾下土
谁知盘中餐
粒粒皆辛苦

Mooring at Night by Maple Bridge

As the moon falls from a frosty sky, a crow cries
On the shadowy banks in the River Maple, fishing boats glitter with torches
Outside Gusu city, at Hanshan (Cold Mountain) Temple,
On my boat, the midnight bell rings for me.

The frosty night was inky black

I was looking for a poem for November and came across this charming but melancholy piece by Tang poet Zhang Ji (張繼, 712-790). It reminds me of English poet, writer, and Anglican cleric’s great sonnet, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

His bronze statue can be found at the Maple Bridge in modern day Suzhou (Gusu).

Zhang Ji

Our new poet Zhang Ji is an enigma, sometimes confused with a later Tang poet of the same name. This Zhang Ji was born in Hubei province. He failed the Imperial examinations twice, before passing the examination on his third attemept in 753. Some have speculated that he wrote the poem after failing the examination. An argument could be made that he wrote it in 753 after passing the examination. He was then a lonely traveler on his way down the Yangtze, heading to Shanghai, then by boat north to the Imperial capital at Chang’an.

Chinese and Pinyin

fēng qiáo yè bó
yuè luò wū tí shuāng mǎn tiān
jiāng fēng yú huǒ duì chóu mián
gūsū chéng wài hánshān sì
yè bàn zhōng shēng dào kè chuán

枫桥夜泊
月落乌啼霜满天
江枫渔火对愁眠
姑苏城外寒山寺
夜半钟声到客船

Du Fu – View of Taishan

How shall I describe Taishan? Everywhere Shangdong is green and flourishing.
In it the Creator has concentrated all that is bountiful and beautiful. Its northern and southern slopes divide the dawn from the dark.
Where layered clouds begin, the climber’s chest heaves, and birds flying home appear suddenly before his straining eyes.
One day I shall reach its highest peak and at a single glance see all the other mountains grown tiny beneath me.

杜甫
望岳

岱宗夫如何 齐鲁青未了
造化钟神秀 阴阳割昏晓
荡胸生层云 决眥入归鸟
会当凌绝顶 一览众山小

Dùfǔ
Wàng yuè


Dàizōng fū rúhé qílǔ qīng wèiliǎo
zàohuà zhōng shénxiù yīnyáng gē hūn xiǎo
dàng xiōng shēng céng yún jué zì rù guī niǎo
huì dāng líng juédǐng yīlǎn zhòng shān xiǎo

The poem’s meaning

Nothing ever seems quite the same. And having previously translated Du Fu’s View of Taishan, two years ago, I thought it time to revisit.

This poem was written early in Du Fu’s illustrious career. Perhaps at the age of 24 or 25, when he took and failed the imperial examination of 735. If so, then the poem is an allegory for Du Fu’s small stature at the time and his hope to climb to the lofty summit of literature. It was a goal he would achieve, becoming along with Li Bai one of China’s most revered poets.

One can certainly over explain a poem and lose both the listener and the meaning. Still, it is important to understand some of the background to the poem.

Mt. Tai, 泰山

The title is Wang Yue which is another name for Taishan or Mt. Tai. Similarly, Daizong of the first line is another reference to Taishan.

Taishan or Mount Tai is known as the eastern mountain of the Five Great Mountains of China, a holy place in Taoism, which regards the mountain as the guardian of peace in the world. Symbolically, it is associated with sunrise, birth, and renewal. An ambitious man would certainly wish to scale its summit.

Qilu, in the second half of the first line, is a reference to the ancient Chinese states of Qi and Lu, of the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046–256 BC). The north side of the mountain is in Qi, the south Lu. Combined, the two characters are shorthand for Shangdong Province where Mt. Tai is located.

The familiar Yin and Yang of line two reference both the cosmic forces of the universe and the fact that the mountain divides the north and south, dawn and dusk.

Climbing Mt. Tai

Climbing Mt. Tai is no easy task, even for a young poet. Even today, it is a strenuous walk of 6666 steps on a paved path climbing for almost 5,000 feet from entrance to summit. The steep hike is a challenge even for the fit, the lungs will ache, and the trip can take five hours. If you are ambitious, then you will want to climb the mountain at night, and as dawn breaks see the sun rise from a sea of clouds.

A flower is no flower – Bai Juyi

A flower is no flower
mist no mist
that which comes at midnight
leaves at dawn,
arrives like a spring dream – for a while
leaves like a morning cloud – nowhere to be found

On the meaning of life

Perhaps because his mother died, caused by falling into a well while looking at some flowers, or because Bai overstepped himself as a palace official and was exiled to to Jiujiang (Xun Yang), Bai Juyi chose to write this lovely poem about the fleeting nature of life.
Poets and songwriters have long written about the ephemeral nature of life. No one has done it better than Bai Juyi, though one can try (and lose the poem’s simplicity and rhyme):

“Like the flower that fades and dies, like the morning mist, that which comes in the darkness of night, departs at first light, life that comes in spring like a dream, leaves like a morning cloud, and then is nowhere to be found.”


Not a cheery view, indeed. And perhaps contemptuous of the Tang dynasty, because in the last line, Bai’s makes an ambiguous reference to the imperial court, 朝 cháo, meaning morning, but also “dynasty”.

It has been said that man is a being in search of meaning.

What’s yours?

Original Chinese

花非花,霧非霧
夜半來,天明去
來如春夢, 不多時
去似朝雲, 無覓處

Pinyin

Huā fēi huā wù fēi wù
yèbàn lái tiānmíng qù
lái rú chūnmèng bù duō shí
qù shì cháo yún wú mì chù

Notes on translation

花 huā, flower. A flower is a symbol of beauty, perseverance, love, and most of all the transitory nature of life.
霧 wù, mist or fog.
天明 tiānmíng, dawn, first light, break of day.
春夢 chūnmèng, literally spring dream, figuratively a brief illusion.
朝雲 cháo yún, morning cloud, cháo can also be a subtle reference to the imperial court, since 朝, means “morning”, but also “imperial court”. This was the kind of language that got Bai Juyi in trouble.