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Poetry selection from Readymades by Tony Barnstone in Fall 2001.

DU FU (712-770)

Translated byTony Barnstone and Chou Ping

      If there is one undisputed genius of Chinese poetry it is Du Fu. The Taoist Li Bai was more popular, the Buddhist Wang Wei was sublimely simple and more intimate with nature, but the Confucian Du Fu had extraordinary thematic range and was a master and innovator of all the verse forms of his time. In his life he never achieved fame as a poet and thought himself a failure in his worldly career. Perhaps only a third of his poems survive due to his long obscurity; his poems appear in no anthology earlier than one dated one hundred thirty years after his death, and it wasn't until the 11th century that he was recognized as a preeminent poet. His highly allusive, symbolic complexity and resonant ambiguity is at times less accessible than the immediacy and bravado of Li Bai. Yet there is a suddenness and pathos in much of his verse, which creates a persona no less constructed than Wang Wei's reluctant official and would-be hermit or Li Bai's blithely drunken Taoist adventurer. Most of what we know of his life is recorded in his poems, but there are dangers to reading his poems as history and autobiography. By the time he was in his twenties, he was referring to his long white hair—in the persona of the Confucian elder. As Sam Hamill notes, “It was natural that many a poet would adopt the persona of the 'long white-haired” and old man—this lent a younger poet an authority of tone and diction he might never aspire to otherwise.” Du Fu is sometimes called “the poet of history” because his poems record the turbulent times of the decline of the Tang dynasty and constitute in part a Confucian societal critique of the suffering of the poor and the corruption of officials. He also records his own sufferings, exile, falls from grace, the death of his son by starvation; but some critics have suggested that the poems on these themes are exaggerated in the service of self-dramatization.
     Du Fu was born to a prominent but declining family of scholar-officials, perhaps from modern day Henan province, though he referred to himself as a native of Duling, the ancestral home of the Du clan. In the Six Dynasties period his ancestors were in the service of the southern courts; his grandfather Du Shenyan, was an important poet of the early Tang dynasty, and a more remote ancestor, Du Yu (222-84), was a famed Confucianist and military man. In spite of family connections, however, Du Fu had difficulty achieving patronage and governmental postings, and twice failed the Imperial Examinations, in 735 and 747. He was a restless traveler, and the poems of this early period show him to be a young man given to revelry, military and hunting arts, painting and music. In 744 he met Li Bai, and this formed the basis for one of the world's most famed literary friendships; the two poets devote a number of poems to each other. In 751 Du Fu passed a special examination that he finagled through submitting rhyme-prose works directly to the emperor, but it wasn't until 755 that he was offered a post—a rather humiliating posting in the provinces—which he rejected, accepting instead the patronage of the heir apparent. In the winter of that year, however, the An Lushan Rebellion broke out, and the emperor fled to Sichuan, abdicated, and the heir apparent became the new emperor in Gansu province. Meanwhile, the rebels seized the capital, and Du Fu, attempting to join the new emperor in the distant northwest, was captured by the rebels. He was detained for a year, but managed to escape, and after traveling in disguise through the occupied territory, joined the emperor's court in the position of Reminder. He was arrested soon after four his outspokenness in defending a friend, a general who had failed to win a battle, but was pardoned and exiled to a low posting in Huazhou. He quit his job there, and moved to Chengdu, where he and his family depended upon the kindness of friends and relatives, and moved again and again to avoid banditry and rebellions. In spite of this instability, his poems show a serenity in this period, particularly those from 760-762, when he lived in a “thatched hut” provided by a patron and friend named Yan Yu, who hired him in the years that followed as a military adviser. After Yan's death in 765, Du Fu left Chengdu, traveling down the Yangtze River, finding patrons and dreaming of a return to Changan, but being prevented by invasions from Tibet. He spent his final three years traveling on a boat, detained in sickness, and finally winding down to his death as he journeyed down the Yangtze, apparently accepting the withering away of his health and life.

Twenty-Two Rhymes to Left-Prime-Minister Wei

Boys in fancy clothes never starve,
but Confucian scholars often find their lives in ruin.
Please listen to my explanation, Sir,
I, your humble student, ask permission to state my case.
When I was a younger Du Fu
I was honored as a national distinguished guest
and wore out ten thousand books in reading.

My brush was always inspired by gods,
my rhymed essays rivaled those of Yang Xiong,
my poems were kin with those of Cao Zijian.
Li Yong looked for a chance to meet me,
and even Wang Han wanted to be my neighbor.
I thought I was an outstanding person,
positioned at a key ferryboat route
and would assist an emperor like Yao or Shun,
and make folk customs honest and simple again.
In the end this ambition withered.
I became a bard instead of a hermit,
and spent thirty years traveling on a donkey,
ate traveler's rations in the luxury of the capital,
knocked on the door of the rich in the morning,
walked in the dust of fat horses in the evening,
ate leftover dishes and half-finished wine.
Wherever I went, I found misery hiding beneath.
When the emperor summoned me,
I was excited at this chance to stretch myself.
I saw blue sky but my wings just hung.
I was set back, had no scales to swim far.
I feel unworthy of your kindness,
and I know your sincerity:
in the presence of one hundred officials,
you read my best poems.
I am as happy as Gong Gong.
Since it's hard to imitate Confucius disciple Yuan Xian
how can I feel unhappy about anything,
though my feet still drag as usual?
Now I plan to move east to the sea,
and leave the capital behind me in the west.
But I still feel attached to the Zhongnan Mountain,
and turn my head to look at the Wei River.
I think about my gratitude for one meal
as I take departure from you, Prime Minister.
This white gull is lost in the waves.
Who can tame him in his journey of ten thousand miles?

Notes “Twenty-Two Rhymes to Left-Prime-Minister Wei”

Yang Xiong (53 B.C. – 18 A.D.): A very well-known rhymed-prose writer in the Han Dynasty.
Cao Zijian: Another name for Cao Zhi (192-232), well-known poet in the Jian-an period.
Li Yong: A famous man of letters during Du Fu's time and he went to Qizhou (Jinan) to meet Du Fu.
Wang Han (678 – 735?): A Tang poet known for his war poems.
Yao and Shun: Names of the wise kings in the legendary Golden Age of Chinese history.
Gong Gong: A reference to Gong Yu of the West Han dynasty. His friend Wang Ji was promoted to a high rank and he felt very happy about it for he knew that Wang Ji would recommend him for a good position.
Yuan Xian: A disciple of Confucius who became a hermit and lived a simple life after Confucius' death.
One meal: Refers to the story of Han Xin in the Historical Records by Sima Qian. Han Xin was very poor when he was young. He was fishing and an old woman washing clothes noticed his hunger and provided him with food. When Han Xin became the King of Chu, he looked for the old woman and gave her a thousand units of gold. After the old woman's death, he had her buried positioned in symmetry with his own mother.

Looking at Mount Tai

How is Mountain Tai?
Its green is seen beyond State Qi and State Lu,
a distillation of creation's spirit and beauty.
Its slopes split day into Yin and Yang.
Its rising clouds billow in my chest.
Homecoming birds fly through my wide-open eyes.
I should climb to the summit
and in one glance see all other mountains dwarfed.

Jiang Village (3 Poems)

Red evening clouds are mountainous in the west
and the sun's feet disappear under the horizon.
Sparrows noisy over the brushwood door.
I am a traveler home after a thousand miles.
My wife and children are startled to see me alive.
The surprise ends but they can't stop wiping tears.
In the chaotic world I was tossed about;
I've found my way home, alive by accident.
Neighbors crowd over our garden walls.
They are moved, sighing and even weeping.
In deep night we hold candles,
facing each other as if in dream.

I live my late years as if I've stolen my life.
Very few joys after I returned home.
My little son never lets go of my knees,
afraid I will go away again.
I remember I liked to chase cool shade,
so I walk under trees by the pond.
Whistling, the north wind is strong,
I finger past events and a hundred worries fry in my mind.
However, the crops are harvested,
wine spurts from the mouth of the flask
and I have enough to fill my cups
and console me in my dusk.

A group of chickens make chaos
and fight each other as guests arrive.
I drive them up bushes and trees,
before I hear knocking on my brushwood gate:
four or five village elders greet me
and ask about my long absence.
Each of them brings a gift in hand.
Their wines pour out, some clear, some muddy.
They apologize for their wine, so watery,
as there was no one to grow millet.
Weapons and horses can't rest yet;
the young men are gone on the expedition east.
I offer a song for my old village folks,
feeling deep gratitude.
After singing, I sigh and throw back my head
and tears meander down our faces.

Newlywed's Departure

Chinese vines climb up low hemp plants;
the tendrils cannot stretch very far.
To marry a daughter to a drafted man
is worse than abandoning her by roadside.
“I just did my hair up as a married woman,
haven't even had time to warm the bed for you.
Marry in the evening and depart in the morning,
isn't that too hurried!
You are not going very far,
just to guard the borders at Heyang,
but my status in the family is not yet official.
How can I greet my parents-in-laws?
When my parents brought me up,
they kept me in my room day and night.
When a daughter is married,
she has to stay even if she's wed to a chicken or dog.
Now you are going to the place of death.
A heavy pain cramps my stomach.
I was determined to follow you wherever you went,
then realized that was not proper.
Please don't be hampered by our new marriage;
try to be a good soldier.
When women get mixed up in an army,
I fear, the soldiers' morale will falter.
I sigh, since I'm from a poor family
and it took so long to sew this silk dress.
I will never put this dress on again,
and I'm going to wash off my make-up while you watch.
Look at those birds flying up in the sky,
Big or small they stay in pairs,
but human life is full of mistakes and setbacks.
I will forever wait for your return.”

Old Couple's Departure

The four outskirts are not yet safe and quiet,
I am old, but have no peace.
All my sons and grandsons died in battle;
it's no use to keep my body alone in one piece.
Throwing away my walking stick, I walk out the door.
The other soldiers are saddened, pitying me.
I'm lucky to still have all my teeth
but I regret the marrow has dried in my bones.
Wearing a soldier's helmet and armor,
I salute my officers before departure.
My old wife is lying in the road weeping.
The year is late and her clothes thin.
Though I know at heart this is our death-farewell,
her shivering in cold still hurts me.
I know I will never come back,
yet hear her out when she says, “Eat more!”
The city wall around Earth Gate is very strong,
and the Xingyuan ferry is hard for the enemy to cross,
so the situation is different from the siege of Ye City,
and I will have some time before I die.
In life we part and we rejoin;
we have no choice, young or old.
I recall my young and strong days,
and walk about with long sighs.
War has spread through ten thousand countries
till beacon fires blaze from all the peaks.
So many corpses that grass and trees stink like fish,
rivers and plains dyed red with blood.
Which land is the happy land?
How can I linger here!
I abandon my thatched house
and feel my liver and lungs collapse.

A Homeless Man's Departure

After the Rebellion of 755, all was silent wasteland,
gardens and cottages turned to grass and thorns.
My village had over a hundred households,
but the chaotic world scattered them east and west.
No information about the survivors;
the dead are dust and mud.
I, a humble soldier, was defeated in battle.
I ran back home to look for old roads
and walked a long time through the empty lanes.
The sun was thin, the air tragic and dismal.
I met only foxes and raccoons,
their hair on end as they snarled in rage.
Who remains in my neighborhood?
One or two old widows.
A returning bird loves its old branches,
how could I give up this poor nest?
In spring I carry my hoe all alone,
yet still water the land at sunset.
The county governor's clerk heard I'd returned
and summoned me to practice the war-drum.
This military service won't take me from my state.
I look around and have no one to worry about.
It's just me alone and the journey is short,
but I will end up lost if I travel too far.
Since my village has been washed away,
near or far makes no difference.
I will forever feel pain for my long-sick mother.
I abandoned her in this valley five years ago.
She gave birth to me, yet I could not help her.
We cry sour sobs till our lives end.
In my life I have no family to say farewell to,
so how can I be called a human being?