古柏行 – On the Ancient Cypress

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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. 

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A beautiful rendition of the poem, in the cursive calligraphic style. (Reads from up to down, right to left)

Poem

孔明庙前有老柏,

In front of Kongming’s temple, an ancient cypress stands, 

柯如青铜根如石。

Its every twig like burnished bronze, its roots hard as rock. 

霜皮溜雨四十围,

Its frost-white skin guards the trunk from rain for a length of forty spans,

黛色参天二千尺。

And its green-black form pierces the sky some two thousand feet.

君臣已与时际会,

The tale of how Liu Bei sought Kongming may belong in the past, 

树木犹为人爱惜。

Yet the tree erected here is well loved to this day. 

云来气接巫峡长,

The clouds that drift here link its spirit to the Wuxia Gorges; 

月出寒通雪山白。

The moonlight shows its coldness like the driven mountain snows. 

忆昨路绕锦亭东,

Once a little footpath circled round my thatched hut, 

先主武侯同閟宫。

And Liu Bei shared a temple palace with the Martial Marquess. 

崔嵬枝干郊原古,

The high branches grace the ancient earth which is their host,

窈窕丹青户牖空。

Through the temple’s painted windows, the clear air freely flows. 

落落盘踞虽得地

Deeply rooted though the mighty ancient cypress is, 

冥冥孤高多烈风。

Its isolated height makes it good sport for fierce winds.

扶持自是神明力,

That it remains standing must be by some godly favour, 

正直原因造化功。

That it stands so straight is by providence’s good grace. 

大厦如倾要梁栋,

A tilting tower still requires posts to prop it up, 

万牛回首丘山重。

But a cypress weighty as a hill will always hold its own. 

不露文章世已惊,

Even if it hid its rings, it would amaze a guest, 

未辞翦伐谁能送。

And if it did not resist felling, would it stand now for our eyes?

苦心岂免容蝼蚁,

All its effort may not guard it from grubs and worms and rot, 

香叶终经宿鸾凤。

But the fragrance of its leaves stays fit for phoenixes to roost. 

志士幽人莫怨嗟,

Sigh not, you hidden talents, you ambitious minds of our world – 

古来材大难为用。

Ever have great minds been hard-pressed to find befitting work. 

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2 thoughts on “古柏行 – On the Ancient Cypress

  1. Ah! Du Fu. Great master of poetry and life!
    Thanks for sharing this beautiful poem and your cute translation.

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