Introspection has not been much in vogue for, well, the last four or five centuries, at least in the West, anyway. The man of thought has become the man of action, the one who changes the world, makes things better. As we head pell-mell into the post-digital, post-handwritten, robot-manufactured world, the question of just where we might be going should give us pause for thought. Certainly the notion that the very act of thinking could itself alter the world, build its complexity and beauty, and of course its wisdom, would meet with a sceptical response these days. Yet RT suspects that something like this understanding lies close to the heart of Eastern religion and art. This is the world we dream of, the world which heals us and in which we have our true place. It is not magic, but a sense of a broader connection to our surroundings.
Du Fu seems to have started his career as a gifted poet, but one who had not met with profound suffering. The collapse of China in the mid-8th century forced him to flee the capital, and to confront in a basic way his life and the unfolding of history around him. Out of his despair he refashioned the possibilities of Chinese poetry, the Chinese people, and RT would argue, the possibilities of humanity as it today struggles with overwhelming change.
Winding River 1
a last petal falling marks the close of spring;
trees shed their 10,000 tears in contentious winds.
I’ll drink my wine, then, and examine
blossoms lying trampled in the mud.
and yet, in the abandoned riverside pavilion,
kingfishers flash and mate. At the foot
of high tombs in the park, stone unicorns
rest in conjugal silence.
all things live in their joy—
exiled from the palace, I wander,
Photo: Statues in the Imperial Tomb of Tang Emperor Gaozong. Zingaro. WikiCmns. CC BY 2.0.
This poem, by Du Fu, China’s greatest poet, continues to haunt RT. The version below isn’t his first attempt at bringing the poem over into English, and certainly the poem’s reputation (its opening lines are generally considered to be the greatest ever written in Chinese poetry) has something to do with his interest. Or it may simply be that the poem is being given to RT slowly, line by line. An improvement over his previous attempt? RT will let his readers judge …
The Great Palace lies in ruins;
mountains reflect, rivers pass on.
In cities, weeds like silk pile up,
and rain slaps the flower’s cheek.
But enough of this!
Birdsong astonishes my heart.
Three months have passed
and still the beacon fires burn.
I’d pay pure gold for a letter.
Raking my head, exasperated,
I pull loose my scholar’s knot.
The hairpin dangles.
Painting: Emperor Xuanzong of Tang fleeing to Sichuan province from Chang’an; painter unknown. 11th century. WikiCmns. Public Domain.
Sometimes things come undone. There’s always a reason, but the important thing is to work through the problem, however long that might take. The opening line of this poem (which RT has divided into two lines), by the master poet Du Fu, is generally considered the greatest in Chinese poetry. Suffering sometimes brings wisdom, and even beauty. RT
Spring and Autumn Report
The great palace lies in ruins;
mountains and rivers look on.
Weeds like silk piled high
adorn empty cities—
in the chaos, even flowers weep.
I’ve heard nothing from my family—
but enough of this!
The alarum of birds soothes my heart.
Three months have passed
and still the beacon fires burn;
I’d pay gold for a single letter.
Frustrated, I scratch my head,
pull loose a handful of hair.
The hairpin dangles.
version, © The Rag Tree, 2015
Painting: River Landscape. Dong Yuan, 10th Century. National Palace Museum, Taipei. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
The New Year has started, and it has been almost exactly a month since RT last posted. By way of explanation, he will say only that various transitions and plottings are afoot and have taken him away from his regular obligations and projects. More will be revealed as some of this work begins to bear fruit (which is to say, in the next post or two). Our distracted blogger’s first contribution of 2015 is his version of a poem by Chan Buddhist monk Jia Dao (old spelling, Chia Tao), 779-843 AD. Highly regarded during his life, JD is not now as well known as the small group of most famous T’ang poets that includes Du Fu and Bai Juyi; on the basis of the following poem, RT thinks this might be a mistake. JD seems to have combined a deep respect for natural process with indications of the intensity of his experience as a monk, linking his internal and external lives in unforgettable images.
Evening; Watching the Snow Stop
Clutching my staff, I watch the storm lift;
hills and clouds braid tight, dissolve in dusk.
Woodcutters disappear into their cabins
as a weary sun drops to its bed.
And later: wildfire flowers in distant grass.
Tattered mist trailing; boulders, pine.
Hushed, I climb the monastery road—
night strikes the mountain like a bell.
Chia Tao/Jia Dao
version by Eric Quinn
copyright 2015, The Rag Tree
Photo: Tetons from Signal Mountain (1941); author, Ansel Adams. National Archives. Public Domain. *
The An Lushan Rebellion, which broke out on December 16, 755 A.D., devastated China’s Tang Dynasty and brought to a close the era known as the “High Tang,” which is generally considered to be China’s finest cultural and political flowering. The last imperial census taken before the rebellion (in 755) reported a population of 53 million; the census of 764 (the year after the rebellion ended) counted just 17 million. Thirty-six million people had died or been left homeless during the fighting.
Out of the wreckage emerged a remarkable voice, a poet whom the Chinese have honored for centuries as the greatest they have ever produced. This man, Du Fu (712-770), developed a technical mastery of the demanding 5-character Shi form of Chinese poetry that has never been equaled. But while Du Fu’s skill was evident early on, his empathy for the suffering of ordinary people and criticism of the corruption and cruelty of the elite developed in response to the rebellion and place his work in a special category. Not that other Chinese poets didn’t develop a comparable concern for the welfare of the people (Bai Juyi among them), but none of these (admittedly gifted) men spoke with such heartbreaking clarity of the crisis and its place in the Chinese worldview.
To translate a poet as great as Du Fu is to spend significant time with him (or her) via reading, reflection, and writing; RT makes no claim to having invested the requisite energy and time in Du Fu, but offers here a step towards gaining an understanding of the writer the Chinese have called “the god of poets.”
Grass murmurs along the riverbank,
and our mast sways high in the breeze;
stars fall. broad fields, flat, empty,
are gone in the moon’s eruption from water.
Has poetry not exalted my name?
old scribblers should know when to quit.
not yet a ghost, flickering, i drift
on a gull’s wings between heaven and earth.
Copyright © 2014, The Rag Tree.
Photo: Statue of Du Fu (located in Chengdu). Photo author: Fanghong. WikiCmns; CC BY-SA 3.0.
structure and tension, meaning and motion: we are balanced between absolute truth and pure fluency. poetry. RT
• • •
The statistics are insane: China’s Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2012, is the largest hydroelectric project in the world. The dam has an installed capacity of 20.3 billion watts of electricity, the largest hydro-electrical capacity in the world, ahead of the Itaipu Dam in Brazil and Paraguay (14 billion watts). The dam wall is 594 ft. tall and stretches 7,661 ft. (1.45 mi.). The TGD is the world’s largest by holding capacity (nearly 32 billion acre-feet) and has created a reservoir 370 miles long (for the record, that’s longer than Lake Superior) with an average elevation of 570 ft. above sea level.
The electricity generated by Three Gorges will go a long way to shutting down China’s coal-fired power plants, notorious for the air pollution they caused, and the reservoir should finally end the devastating floods that people along the lower Yangtze River have endured throughout history (300,000 people killed during the 20th century alone).
The problems with the dam have been manifold: 1) silting (addressed now by China’s massive forest-planting program); 2) pollution of the reservoir; 3) landslides along the reservoir shoreline; 4) the relocation of more than a million former residents along the river; 5) the functional extinction of the Yangtse River Dolphin (the Baiji); and 6) the loss of undiscovered archaeological sites along the river.
Is the TGD worth it? Would the construction of a series of smaller dams along tributaries have provided the same benefits without the ecological problems? RT guesses that wiser is not always better: the appeal of the Three Gorges Dam to the imagination is surely part of this calculation, and the scope of the project speaks to our sense of drama. RT has a hunch that this grand gamble on the part of the Chinese government will pay off.
Photo: Three Gorges Dam (Yangtze), Author: gugganij. WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Generic.