In Chinese, many characters have the ‘wood’ (木) radical on its side. Aside from common words used for things made out of wood – chair (椅), bed (床), shelve (柜) for example – many of them are words for different sorts of trees, such as the pine (松), plum (梅), oak (橡 or 栎), and of course the subject for today, the cypress (柏).
A long lived tree relatively common in Sichuan, this conifer must have been quite a familiar sight to Du Fu 杜甫 when he lived in Chengdu as a refugee from the chaos in the north caused by the An-Shi Rebellion. (You can read more about this here.)
Before managing to escape, he was in truly hot water in Chang’an, former capital of the Tang Dynasty which had fallen to the rebels. This is because, as a previous minister in the Tang Court, he had submitted advice against An Lushan, warning against giving him enormous military authority over all Tang forces in the northeast. The advice was not heeded; the authority backfired horribly, and Du Fu nearly died for it.
In comparison to those days, living in peaceful Sichuan must have been a considerable relief. But Du Fu remained outside the mainstream of politics despite his ambitions, and instead became a poor, wandering poet. We are, of course, much the better for it.
In front of Kongming’s temple, an ancient cypress stands,
Its every twig like burnished bronze, its roots hard as rock.
Its frost-white skin guards the trunk from rain for a length of forty spans,
And its green-black form pierces the sky some two thousand feet.
The tale of how Liu Bei sought Kongming may belong in the past,
Yet the tree erected here is well loved to this day.
The clouds that drift here link its spirit to the Wuxia Gorges;
The moonlight shows its coldness like the driven mountain snows.
Once a little footpath circled round my thatched hut,
And Liu Bei shared a temple palace with the Martial Marquess.
The high branches grace the ancient earth which is their host,
Through the temple’s painted windows, the clear air freely flows.
Deeply rooted though the mighty ancient cypress is,
Its isolated height makes it good sport for fierce winds.
That it remains standing must be by some godly favour,
That it stands so straight is by providence’s good grace.
A tilting tower still requires posts to prop it up,
But a cypress weighty as a hill will always hold its own.
Even if it hid its rings, it would amaze a guest,
And if it did not resist felling, would it stand now for our eyes?
All its effort may not guard it from grubs and worms and rot,
But the fragrance of its leaves stays fit for phoenixes to roost.
Sigh not, you hidden talents, you ambitious minds of our world –
Ever have great minds been hard-pressed to find befitting work.