Chinese towers are actually a bit of an exception in Chinese architecture. Whereas most traditional Chinese buildings emphasise width and vastness rather than height, there is nonetheless a big fascination with these buildings.
Of course, there are functional uses for many of these buildings; but a large part of the fascination is with the spiritual and mystical. After all, most Chinese towers are Buddhist pagodas, or derivations thereof. And so it is with the poem I’ll be doing this week, except the influence is not Buddhist but Taoist.
The following poem is by an early Tang poet, Cui Hao 崔顥 (704 – c. 754), who was one of the openers of the tradition of poems with regular lines of five or seven characters (seven in this instance), grouped mostly into quatrains. The sort of poems, in other words, which made Li Bai, Du Fu and all the rest of them legends; and those great poets also recognised the value of Cui as an early adopter.
The following poem is about one of the ‘Four Great Towers of China’, the Yellow Crane Tower, in what is now Wuhan in Hubei Province. This building got its name from an incident in Taoist legends, which is alluded to in the poem – a man, after long years of meditation, became a 仙 xian or Immortal, and is carried off into the heavens riding a yellow crane. Another story states that a well-established immortal often used the spot where the tower stands as a landing pad for his personal yellow crane (he probably wasn’t pleased when they built the tower, then).
Li Bai once wrote a couplet when he visited the tower, admiring both the building itself and this poem:
Before my eyes lies scenery I can scarce describe, and yet above it Cui Hao has already penned a work!
A man of yore rode off on a yellow crane,
and all that’s left here is Yellow Crane Tower.
The yellow crane, having flown, never returned;
the white clouds for a thousand years freely drift.
Now the trees of Hanyang are arrayed before the clear river,
And fragrant grasses grow lush on Parrot Island.
And where are the gates of home in the fading light?
The fog rippling over the River evokes such woe.