One of the highlights of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, was a visit to Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage. Our friends, Tia and Carol, (their chosen Western names) recommended this visit and I’m so pleased they did. That visit, in August 2015, sparked an interest in the poetry of the Tang Dynasty. Lasting for 400 years or so, (7th to 10th century CE ), the Tang Dynasty is regarded as the Golden era of Chinese literature and art, comparable to the Renaissance era of Italy and Europe. Over 48,900 poems penned by some 2,200 Tang authors have survived to the present day. Skill in the composition of poetry became a required study for those wishing to pass imperial examinations while poetry contests were common among guests at Imperial banquets.
Du Fu ( 712-770) is regarded as China’s Shakespeare: he is revered as one of China’s greatest poets. His poetry is studied at school and is recalled fondly by Chinese adults. They enjoy sprouting a few lines of Du Fu’s more famous poems, akin to Westerners dropping a few lines from Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet in order to sound erudite. It’s also interesting to know that many non-Chinese scholars are dedicated followers of the Tang Dynasty poets, as work continues on better translations. Translation into English (or any other language) is painstaking work and requires a 4 step process-
- translating the more stylised characters used by the Tang poets into the modern form of Chinese logosyllabic or logoraphic script,
- writing this in Pinyin, the Romanisation of Chinese characters based on phonetics, including stress indicators for tones,
- producing a translation that includes elements of the original sound and structure, as well the encapsulating the imagery and meaning of the original.
- polishing this version until it is harmonious and accessible. A worthwhile translation of a single poem can take years of work. Versions vary greatly and after studying this field, you may find your preferred translators/ translations.
Du Fu’s cottage and museum is set inside a 24-acre park, situated on the outskirts of Chengdu in Sichuan Province, China. It was created in the early 16th century during the Ming Dynasty and extensively renovated in 1811 during the Qing Dynasty. In 1961 the Chinese government established Du Fu Thatched Cottage Park as a National Heritage site. The park is beautiful to wander through, providing a break from all those dead poets.
The park consists of several areas:
- Du Gongbu Memorial Hall (工部祠; Gōngbù Cí), where the life and work of Du Fu is displayed, including some rare Song dynasty wood carvings.
- The thatched cottage of Du Fu. A reconstructed thatched hut partitioned into a study, a bedroom and kitchen, recreating the living and working environment of Du Fu’s time.
- The Hall of Great Poets (大雅堂; Dàyǎ Táng). An exhibition hall with a 16 meter long by 4 meter tall mural painting portraying scenes from Du Fu’s poems: “My Thatched Hut Wrecked by the Autumn Wind” and “A Song of War Chariots”. There are also statues of twelve prominent Chinese poets, including that of Li Bai, Du Fu’s friend, and drinking companion. There are also panels displaying different styles of calligraphy.
- There’s also a bookshop and library. As a traveller, I had to resist the temptation of buying these beautiful but weighty books.
Two beautiful poems by Du Fu
Roads not yet glistening, rain slight,
Broken clouds darken after thinning away.
Where they drift, purple cliffs blacken.
And beyond — white birds blaze in flight.
Sounds of cold-river rain grown familiar,
Autumn sun casts moist shadows. Below
Our brushwood gate, out to dry at the village
Mill: hulled rice, half-wet and fragrant.
Above the tower — a lone, twice-sized moon.
On the cold river passing night-filled homes,
It scatters restless gold across the waves.
On mats, it shines richer than silken gauze.
Empty peaks, silence: among sparse stars,
Not yet flawed, it drifts. Pine and cinnamon
Spreading in my old garden . . . All light,
All ten thousand miles at once in its light.
And another, which reminds me of our time in isolation during this pandemic,
The country is broken, though hills and rivers remain,
In the city in spring, grass and trees are thick.
Moved by the moment, a flower’s splashed with tears,
Mourning parting, a bird startles the heart.
The beacon fires have joined for three months now,
Family letters are worth ten thousand pieces.
I scratch my head, its white hairs growing thinner,
And barely able now to hold a hairpin.
Dear Reader, Do you read poetry? And if so, who is your favourite poet? Do you find that reading poetry provides you with a silent space for reflection?
References for further inquiry.
- Hawkes, D. (1967) A Little Primer of Tu Fu. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Hinton, D. (1990) The Selected Poems of Tu Fu. London, Anvil Press Poetry.
Hung, W. (1952) Tu Fu: China’s Greatest Poet. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
Watson, B. (2002) The Selected Poems of Du Fu. New York, Columbia University Press.
- An example of the translation process at work, using the poem, Spring View, can be found here. http://www.chinese-poems.com/d15.html
and some sites consulted,