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.

It’s cold, 已涼

Chinese woman in scarlet dress with fan

It’s Cold
Through her blue green door
Past the scarlet screen full of flowers and blossoms
Lies a brocaded quilt of an eight-foot dragon beard
It is cool but not yet cold

The poem’s meaning

It is autumn and that means falling leaves of red and gold, cold fronts and cool air. The first frost has not come, so that the flowers continue to bloom and the vegetables ripen. Remember when it was spring and love was new. Then summer and love was hot.

Now it is autumn, and our love has cooled (涼 yǐ ), but not yet cold (寒 hán). And we both know, it is time to say goodbye.

Dragon’s Beard

I could and will speculate on the dragon’s beard that Han Wo weaves into the bed spread. Surely, the beard of the dragon had some mythical property, now forgotten. It was also a popular candy confection, originating during the Han dynasty, similar to our cotton candy, and quite ephemeral, when the temperature was hot.

While I am at it, let’s talk numbers. Han Wo chose an eight-foot beard. Eight is a lucky number in Chinese, similar to the word ‘Fa’, which means to make a fortune, so maybe, Han Wo was hoping to get lucky that night.

Han Wo (Han Wu)

Han Wo (韩偓 Han Wu, 842–844 – 923) survived the end of the Tang dynasty (907); and, so, represents a closing bookend to poetry of the Tang dynasty. His father was acquainted with poet Li Shangyin, and it is said that Li recognized Han Wo’s poetic gift at an early age.

Original Chinese

已涼

碧闌干外繡簾垂
猩色屏風畫折枝
八尺龍鬚方錦褥
已涼天氣未寒時

Pinyin

Yǐ liáng

Bìlán gān wài xiù lián chuí
xīng sè píngfēng huà zhézhī
bā chǐ lóng xū fāng jǐn rù
yǐ liáng tiānqì wèi hán shí