One hears, it’s said, Chang’an is a game of chess
A century of events beyond sorrow
Where princely palaces have new owners and
Civilian and military clothes have changed from the past
To the north of the mountain pass, gongs and drums sound
In the western campaign, wagons and horses and feathered dispatches are slowed
The dragons and fish are lonely, the autumn river is cold
My thoughts are always of the Motherland in peace
Tang Emperor Xuanzong fleeing Chang’an, painting 11th century, anonymous
Motherland at War
In 756, Chang’an, capital of the Tang dynasty, the largest empire in the world, fell to the rebel forces of General An Lushan.
The Imperial Chinese Emperor Xuanzong fled to Sichuan. There he abdicated in favor of his son, the new Emperor Suzong. Thereafter, between 757 and 763, Chang’an became a pawn in the battle between Imperial and rebel forces where moves and counter moves of the two armies were laid out as if on a chessboard. Flags were used in the day to signal troop movements. Gongs and drums were used at night, drums to attack, gongs to retreat. The continuous fighting went back and forth. Feathered dispatches indicated urgency, that is, thick and fast.
In war, delay spells the difference between success and failure in battle.
The Tang capital has fallen, the battle goes back and forth. Fleeing south, Du Fu is captured by the rebels and taken back to Chang’an where he witnesses the changes he writes about. He watches the horse drawn wagons lumber on and sees couriers with feathered dispatches flying off. Here and there one hears the reports of the campaign in the West (征西, zhēng xī).
One pauses for reflection at line seven.
Separately, the first two characters, 鱼龙 yú lóng, translate as fish and dragon. The dragon, 龙, the symbol of the Tang emperor, the fish, 鱼 , of his people. 寂寞 jì mò, each indicate loneliness, together to an extreme, i.e. desolateness. The line concludes with 秋江冷 qiū jiāng lěng, the autumn river is cold, a familiar motif in Tang poems indicating that life was coming to an end.
Two golden orioles sing in the emerald green willow, One row of white egrets fly in the blue sky.
From my window to the west, I spy the snowy mountains of Xiling, From my door to the east, come ships from far away.
A Pair of Golden Orioles Sing
Even the simplest poems present a challenge to the translator.
While we read the poet’s words, we do not see with his eyes, a two golden orioles, huangli. No doubt a pair, perched in the emerald-green willow, cuì liǔ. Are they courting, or have they mated, and now they feed their young?
Overhead a row of snowy egrets graceful in the sky. Perhaps, they are a symbol of purity, patience, and long life? And more, …perhaps, in the egrets, báilù, we recognize Du Fu’s fellow poets coming to seek his counsel.
We do not sense the distance to the snowy Xiling mountains that Du Fu views from his window. Nor do we appreciate that in the recent past An Lushan had come from the distant far away, qian qiu, north.
A life of study – hán chuāng
For those interested in chronology, we can date this poem to the period when Du Fu took up residence in Chengdu. For starters, this is December of 759 AD, when, trying to avoid the vicissitudes of war and political intrigue, he built a thatched cottage. In 762 he left because of a rebellion but returned in 764, and left the following year.
Life is not always easy. The poet knows that a life of strenuous studies, hán chuāng 寒窗, is what it takes. This applies to the translator as well.
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?
Du Fu’s Yuhua Palace is an example ofhuaigu 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.
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.
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, 笙 and 竽, shēng and yú.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 行, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
In Tianshui, the autumn clouds are thin, The western wind having blown ten thousand li. This morning’s view is clear and fine, Long rains do not harm the land. A row of willows trees begins to green, The pear tree on the hill has little red buds. Upstairs, a hujia pipe plays a tune , One goose flies high into the sky.
Du Fu, Clearing Rain
Cai Yan, daughter of Cai Yong
In 759, for the brief period of six weeks, Du Fu stayed in the city of Tianshui in Ganshu Province.
While he was there, it is likely that he heard the haunting hujia (literally, reeded pipe of Hu people) and the story of the beautiful Cai Yan (c. 178 – 249, daughter of Cai Yong). She was abducted by the western Xiongnu, married to a chieftain, and held captive for twelve years, bearing two children. Eventually ransomed, she returned to China, but was forced to leave her children behind.
In captivity, while riding on a cart, she heard the mournful reed of the nomads’ pipes, and was moved to compose this poem, which inspired Du Fu, who incorporates the similar sound “yi yan” (一雁, one goose) in the last line of his poem:
Nomad reed pipes softly blowing, Horses whinnying on the frontier. Above a solitary goose turns its head, Its cry is heard, “Ying, ying.”
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
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 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”.
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”.