A Wilderness View – Du Fu

china mountains snow

A Wilderness View

In the western mountains the snow is white where lies three forts
In the south, the Wanli Bridge crosses the vast Jinjiang River
Oh, the wind and dust keep me from my brothers, and
The edge of heaven ends in tears, as I am so far away
And the future offers only many ills and the stay of the sunset
To the imperial court, I have less use than a speck of dust
Yet, astride my horse I sally forth to the open country
No man can endure the chaos of the world

Setting for Du Fu’s Wilderness View

In the far west, the Tang imperial forces are hard pressed to keep out the Tibetan army. The poet Du Fu, old in years, approaches the three forts that guard China from the invaders. Astride his horse he stops for a moment to gaze at the snow on the western mountains to compose this poem.

The Jin River (Jinjiang) begins in the western province of Sichuan, that boarders Tibet. I can not find a bridge named Wanli on the Jin River and it may be that Du Fu is using the two Chinese characters 萬 and 里, to mean a thousand miles, or a long bridge, rather than as a place name, wan meaning a thousand, and li being a unit of measurement often equated with a mile.

One Chinese frontier city was Songzhou (松州, in modern Sichuan). Phonetically this is similar to chéng shù of the first line, but this interpretation is a stretch. The characters also sound like Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

Alternate translation of line 2: To the south it is clear to where the the Wanli Bridge crosses the vast Jinjiang River. The similarity in structure of the two characters 浦 and 清 is obvious, but the significance is not.

Line four, edge of heaven is often translated in English as the end of the world.

The Style of Du Fu

Du Fu liked to write in a structured poetry of balancing couplets, a style called Lu Shi (律詩). This can be observed in the Pinyin translation below, particularly in the last two lines.

kuà mǎ chū jiāo shí jímù
bùkān rénshì rì xiāotiáo

Original Chinese and Pinyin

野 望

西 山 白 雪 三 城 戍
南 浦 清 江 萬 里 橋
海 內 風 塵 諸 弟 隔
天 涯 涕 淚 一 身 遙
唯 將 遲 暮 供 多 病
未 有 涓 埃 答 聖 朝
跨 馬 出 郊 時 極 目
不 堪 人 事 日 蕭 條


Xīshān báixuě sān chéng shù
nánpǔ qīngjiāng wànlǐ qiáo
hǎinèi fēngchén zhū dì gé
tiānyá tìlèi yīshēn yáo
wéi jiāng chímù gōng duō bìng
wèi yǒu juān āi dá shèng cháo
kuà mǎ chū jiāo shí jímù
bùkān rénshì rì xiāotiáoDu Fu’s Laments from the South

History of Chinese Tibetan Warfare

The history of Chinese warfare with Tibet is beyond my understanding. One source is China’s Golden Age. Another translation of this poem with background material is found in Du Fu’s Laments from the South by David R. McCraw.

china mountains river

3 Comments Add yours

  1. walter lo says:

    I read your translation and I really enjoyed it. It’s poetry in English 🙂 Then I read the Chinese original and, since I find it quite difficult, I consulted some Chinese experts on the internet. I am afraid their exposition varies in several areas from your translation. So, just for interest’s sake (and to do justice to Du Fu 😀 ) please allow me to mention some of them below.
    Line 3:
    海 內 means “within the country,” short for 四海之内。
    風 塵 the two words together mean “unrest.” During that time the country was wrecked by the rebellion of An Lusan, which was also the reason why Du Fu had to retreat to Szechuan to live, and the unrest in the country also caused the dispersion of his brothers.
    Line 4:
    天 涯 涕 淚 although translated as “The edge of heaven ends in tears” is very poetic and not really wrong, the meaning of the whole of line 4, together with this phrase, means that the poet wept as he was alone all by himself and so far away as if at the edge of the world. The western border area, where Du Fu was, was not the bustling Chengdu of today. It was an inhospitable and undeveloped place then.
    Line 5:
    遲 暮 refers to the poet’s age, ie being late in life. The whole line means that he had to “entrust” his old age to sickly health (as he was not in good health).
    Lines 7 & 8:
    極 目 means “see everywhere”
    不 堪 人 事 means “the human condition/situation is unbearable/deplorable.”
    日 蕭 條 means “daily progressively getting worse, more depressing.” 日 is the used here as the short form for 日日 or 日益。
    So, in the last two lines, the poet was trying to say that as he rode on his horse, going into the open country, he saw… etc etc (the things he described in lines 2 and 3, and lastly the plight of the ordinary folks (such as the farmers).
    I wonder if we now read the poem with added meaning… 🙂


    1. Thanks for your comment and suggestions. That is food for thought:)
      Generally, I think of the poem as an analogy to Hollywood movies of the Old West. The cowboy in the white hat rides off into the sunset after taking care of the cattle rustlers and desperadoes who have made life difficult for the common folk. Where our hero is going is never made clear, but it is always into the sunset, into the west. The future for our hero is uncertain. He has done his job, leaves his “friends” behind and who knows what is to come. The movie I most clearly think of is Shane, starring Alan Ladd. Most Americans recall the little boy at the end of the movie shouting, “Come back Shane!” But he doesn’t.
      The horseman in Du Fu’s beautiful poem seems a bit like Shane in this respect. He is heading west into the sunset, into old age, alone, friendless and with an uncertain future.


      1. walter lo says:

        That’s a very interesting analogy. I have never thought of it from this perspective 🙂


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