Climbing Yueyang Tower – Du Fu

Often I have heard of Lake Dongting
And now I am climbing this tower
With Wu to the east, and Chu to the south
I can see heaven and earth floating

But no word reaches me of family or friends
Old and sick, I am alone in my boat
North of the wall are mountains and war
So, how with my hands on the rails can I not cry

The Poem

Others have date this poem to the year 768. If correct, then the An Lushan Rebellion is at an end, but the devastating troubles caused by eight years of strife still rock the land. Millions of lives have been lost, careers interrupted, families separated.

Du Fu is now 56 years old, suffering from ill health, and making his way down the Yangtze River to Luoyang, his birthplace. Along the way, he comes to Lake Dongting and Yueyang Tower, places he has heard of from his friends and fellow poets Li Bai and Meng Haoran.

Yueyang Tower

architecture China, wood roof

Yueyang Tower is at the western gate on the city wall of Yueyang overlooking Lake Dongting. Legend has it that the roof of the tower was built to commemorate Lu Su, a general of the ancient Wu State, thus Du Fu’s reference to the ancient states of Wu and Chu. At the top of the tower, Du Fu could take in quite a lot. To the north, where the capital lay, there was still the process of clearing up the troubles that rebellion and war had caused.

Perhaps, like the poet Li Bai, Du Fu took in the beauty of the scene, “the water and sky merging into one color and the boundless wonders of its natural beauty.” Or, like Meng Haoran, he experienced “the waters of Lake Dongting covered in steam” sensing “the rolling waves crashing against the wall of Yueyang”.

The Title

Although translations often give the title as 今上 plus the three characters 岳 阳 楼, as “Climbing” or “Ascending” Yueyang Tower, 今上 better translates as, “Now, I am on”. Elsewhere the title appears as 登 plus 岳阳楼 in which case the first character 登 does translate as “climbing” or “ascending”.

Original Chinese Characters

登岳阳楼

昔闻洞庭水
今上岳阳楼
吴楚东南坼
乾坤日夜浮
亲朋无一字
老病有孤舟
戎马关山北
凭轩涕泗流

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