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.
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.