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)

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蜀相 – The Chancellor of Shu

It's called the 武侯祠 Wuhouci, if you wish to find it in Chengdu

The Tomb of Zhuge Liang

If there is one period of Chinese history that everyone seems to know about – thanks to certain novelists, but certainly also to the Japanese game-maker Koei and its unremitting efforts – it seems to be the last decades of the Eastern Han, and the Three Kingdoms Period (184 − 280 AD). This is the era of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four Great Novels of Chinese literature (my favourite one, incidentally); but even before that novel was written the period held an enduring fascination for writers.

Of that period, one of the main heroes is of course 诸葛亮 Zhuge Liang (181 − 234 AD), who even now is a byword for genius in Chinese, but was also known for his loyalty. Having helped his lord 刘备 Liu Bei (161 − 223 AD) conquer the lands of Shu, in modern day Sichuan province, he stabilised, administered and defended that state for a decade after Liu Bei’s death, launching repeated Northern Expeditions against the rival state of Wei in an attempt to reunite China. That he eventually died of overwork and illness was seen as a great tragedy, and part of that view was shaped by the poem we are looking at today.

We last talked about poor Du Fu, the long-suffering sage of poetry, who was kicked this way and that during the turbulent years of the An-Shi Rebellion (749 − 756 AD). One of the many places where he eventually settled was Chengdu, the main city of Sichuan; the province was ideal for Liu Bei because of its position, surrounded by mountains and easily defended, and so it was for the Tang court as well. No doubt Du Fu was all too aware of how another era of instability was washing over the empire again, which drove him to commemorate a hero of another chaotic era.

I’ve been to Chengdu, and visited both the Tomb of the Martial Marquess (Zhuge Liang’s tomb) and Du Fu’s Thatched Hut. The Tomb is indeed a quiet park, well managed and densely vegetated, while Du Fu’s supposed house is a lot more of a tourist trap, more like a Qing Dynasty rich man’s house than the refuge of a poet fleeing a long way from home. Still beautiful, though. I’d definitely recommend both places if one visits Chengdu.

It's a reconstruction, of course. No complaints though.

Du Fu’s thatched cottage, in Chengdu

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曲江二首 – Two poems, written at the Meandering River

Du Fu (712 – 770) is the one part of the Tang Poetic Trinity I’ve been holding back – partly because he is my favourite of the three. While the three contemporary masters perhaps didn’t see it as such, they all lived through an event which would prove a watershed of history – the An-Shi Rebellion (756 – 763), a seven-year revolt named after its two leaders which tore the Tang Dynasty apart at its very peak and undermined the central government fatally. Only Du Fu would survive the calamity; Wang died in 761, and Li in 762.

The way the civil war treated each of the three men, though, perhaps best reflects their character. Wang, captured by the rebels, somehow could not be persuaded to join them; then the Imperial Court suspected him of that exact defection, but were somehow persuaded that he was innocent. So, both sides having washed off his back like water, he returned to his Buddhist life, and remained so even as his titles and ranks were gradually restored to him. The calm within him had carried him through even this calamity.

Li, ever on the move, kept on the move during the war, and was also accused of treason and nearly put to death. Eventually he was exiled to a distant corner of the empire, but even this trip to the Tang version of Siberia proved just another trip in the spirited poet’s life, as he meandered through the realm meeting friends, writing poems and getting smashed. There was no dampening his spirit; he was on the road; he was wild and could not be tamed.

Du Fu, too, was forced into wandering, moving to Chengdu in Sichuan, where the Tang government-in-exile was. But as his nature was heavy, so his journeys were slow, full of pauses and ponderous. He had family to take care of; he did not have the spirit of Li Bai, or the calm of Wang Wei. What he had, more than either of them, was a sharp ear and a sharp eye – and plenty to watch and listen to.

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The Meandering River lay to the south of Chang’an, and during better times was a renowned scenic area for all the well-heeled and literate of the capital. The two poems below, however, were not written in better times; they were composed in 758, in the midst of the Rebellion.

Du Fu had escaped Chang’an when it was captured by rebels in 756; in 757, Tang forces recaptured it. But a year was enough to unmake the entire world around the capital, as Du Fu would know – he had been held in Chang’an for months before escaping to join the government-in-exile. Perhaps it was the tenacity of nature (as he noted in another poem) which led him to visit the Meandering River; perhaps it was that the human world had done its best to reject him – the court he had risked death to rejoin, shuttling through mountains twice, had continuously sidelined and neglected him. Either way, he came and he wrote.

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