Autumn Meditations, 4, Du Fu

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

Emperor Xuanzong of Tang fleeing to Sichuan province from Chang'an, anonymous, original image wikipedia

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.

Chinese and Pinyin

秋兴八首 (四)


qiū xìng bā shǒu (sì)

wén dào cháng ān sì yì qí
bǎi nián shì shì bú shèng bēi
wáng hóu dì zhái jiē xīn zhǔ
wén wǔ yī guān yì xī shí
zhí běi guān shān jīn gǔ zhèn
zhēng xī chē mǎ yǔ shū chí
yú lóng jì mò qiū jiāng lěng
gù guó píng jū yǒu suǒ sī

Notes on translation

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, , the symbol of the Tang emperor, the fish,  , 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.

Spring Thoughts – Li Bai

Draft – simple thought, tough poem to tackle, let me come back and get it right.

Spring Thoughts

In Yan, like blue silk threads, the grass grows
In Qin, it is said, mulberry leaves of emerald green hang low
Somewhere, a husband dreams of returning home
To his heartbroken wife who
Feels the spring breeze strange
As it slips unseen through her silk curtains

Yan and Qin

A soldier’s fate rests on the outcome of a battle; a nation’s fate rests on a war.

A soldier travels to Yan Province (present-day southwestern Shandong and eastern Henan), one of the nine provinces of the ancient Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Li Bai does not identify the battle. Perhaps, it was the Battle of Yan, or one of a series of battles that took place between 194 and 196. Back home in western province of Qin, a wife awaits news of the battle and the war.

Notes on translating Spring Thoughts

The title is 春 (spring) 思 (thought).

From the clues left behind in Li Bai’s poem, we can date the writing of the poem to the spring of 756. Symbolically, the ancient State of Yan was rising like the blue-green grass of spring. The ancient State of Qin hung low like the emerald-green leaves of the mulberry tree.

In the winter of 755, General An Lushan, of Turkic extraction from modern day Mongolia, launched a rebellion against Emperor Xuanzong and the Tang dynasty. By the Lunar New Year in 756, An had captured the eastern Tang capital of Luoyang, establishing a new state of Yan.

Tang generals and their armies moved north to confront the rebellion. In line 1, Li Bai places our warrior husband in the the State of Yan (燕), in the midst of the blue green grasses.

燕 (Yan) 草 (grass) 如 (like) 碧 (bluish-green) 絲 (silk thread)

By 756, General An Lushan had captured the Tang capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an in the ancient state of Qin.) Silk is a symbol of Chinese culture and wealth. The metaphor of hanging low and the fortunes of the Tang dynasty speaks for itself.

Back home in Qin, the ancient Chinese homeland, a wife longs for her absent husband. Low hanging mulberry leaves, upon which the silk worms feast, have recently unfolded in colors of emerald green, symbolizing sadness. A western wind slips though the wife’s silk curtains and she senses a strange emotion with the breeze that is felt but not seen.


In this short poem, Li Bai has managed to repeat the “shi” (homo-phone for poem) sound five times in six lines. Sadly, these homo-phonic puns do not translate well into English. Now, add the additional rhymes of “bi”, “di”, “gui”, “ri”, “qie”, and “he”.

This sad bag of rhymes makes for a poem, whose meaning conveys, but whose beauty is obscured in translation:(

Chinese Characters




Yàn cǎo rú bì sī
Qín sāng dī lǜ zhī
Dāng jūn huái guī rì
Shì qiè duàn cháng shí
Chūn fēng bù xiāng shí
Hé shì rù luó wéi