The Best Landscape Poem for a Ru (Confucianist)

In Chinese, the term Ru (儒) refers to a type of learned and cultured human being. In the West the practice of a Ru is called “Confucianism” because one of its founding teachers was known in English as Confucius. Here, I will simply refer to these cultured human beings as Ru or Ruists, and replace the western misnomer of Confucianism by “Ruism.”

In this post, I translate and comment on Du Fu’s poem “Quatrain,” from a Ruist perspective.

絕句

杜甫

兩個黃鸝鳴翠柳,

一行白鷺上青天。

窗含西嶺千秋雪,

門泊東吳萬里船。

Quatrain

Du Fu [712-770 CE]

Two yellow orioles sing among shining green willows. (i)

A chain of white egrets mount azure skies. (ii)

My window embraces the western mountains (iii)

with their thousand years of snow. (iv)

Beyond my gate a boat lies moored,

waiting for ten thousand li to East Wu. (v)

Notes:

i). In early spring, the green color of the willows looks bright. This is why Du Fu uses the Chinese character 翠 (the bright, shining green of the kingfisher’s feathers), rather than 綠 (chlorine or emerald green).

ii). The exquisite vision presented in these first two verses is really beyond description. First, the verses are extremely well-organized and rhythmic: ‘two,’ ‘yellow orioles,’ ‘sing,’ ‘shining green willows’ correlate respectively to ‘a chain’ ‘white egrets,’ ‘mounts,’ and ‘azure skies.’ Second, the correlating characters speak to a variety of landscaping factors: numbers, shapes, colors, sounds, dynamics (still or moving), space (near and far, earth and sky), etc. Third, the picturesque landscape looks simple, energetic, harmonious and full of a ‘will for life’ (生意). This is an extraordinary aesthetic feeling describing the entire cosmos in the season of early spring which comes from the depths of a Ru’s heart. Because of the simplicity and profundity of an extremely palatable way of human life that the aesthetics of the poem tries to convey, I deliberately use the least complex English words for its translation.

iii). ‘Western mountains’ refers to the high mountains far to the west of the city of Cheng Du.

iv). In early spring, new life emerges; the snow melts near the poet’s cottage. But the snow remains in the high mountains where it has never melted for thousands of years. This speaks to the ever renewing and creating cosmic energy described in the first two verses which is never exhausted! There is an eternal dimension of the constant creativity of Tian (the Ruist conception of the cosmos), and that the window of the poet’s cottage is portrayed as being able to “embrace” (the literal meaning of 含 is ‘to keep in the mouth’) this dimension speaks to how broad-minded and deep-spirited the poet is.

v). This last verse is the most important. It demonstrates that, as a committed Ru, Du Fu longs to resume a Ruist political engagement and social contribution. There are several layers of meaning in this verse. First, during the An Shi rebellion (755-763 CE, some details of which are described in the commentary below), it had been impossible to take a boat along the Yangzi river, traveling from Cheng Du in the geographically higher southwestern China to the lower area of East Wu in southeastern China, since this was a war zone. Now, since the war has just ended, the fact that people could now travel afar made the poet joyful. Second, East Wu was once one of the states in the Three-State period of China (220-280 CE), and its leader was Sun Quan (孙权, 185-252 CE). Sun Quan has been seen by later historians as an able and enlightened political leader who, joining his state with Liu Bei’s State of Shu, succeeded in defeating the invasion of Cao Cao’s (155-220 CE) State of Wei into southern China. In Du Fu’s time, after the rebellion ended, Du Fu imagined that he could travel thousands of li (li is a unit of length in ancient China, which is about half a kilometer) to the area of East Wu. This is saying that Du Fu hoped that the political leaders of his time would, like Sun Quan, cultivate themselves and revive the Tang dynasty. Meanwhile, the poet also wished that he himself would be able to contribute his knowledge and skills to such a revival. Matching the temporal image of the third verse, the spatial image of the final one broadens further the poem’s vision, and speaks to the poet’s deeply held Ruist sentiment that makes him always long to contribute to the well-being of his fellow human beings through substantial social and political engagement.

Commentary:

For the Tang Dynasty, the An Shi rebellion launched by local warlords to challenge the emperor’s central authority became an historical turning-point which marked off the dynasty’s transformation from prosperity to decline. The rebellion caused great social and political chaos, and was finally quelled by the government in 763. In the spring of this year, Du Fu was living in his cottage in Cheng Du, to which he had moved several years earlier in order to avoid the war zones in central China. Overjoyed by the central government’s success, Du Fu wrote this beautiful landscape four line (quatrain) poem. In my view, this is a perfect poem for Ru contemplation even today.

According to the definitive metaphysical texts of Ruism such as those of Confucius’ (551-479 BCE) Appended Texts of the Classic of Change, and Zhou Dunyi’s (1017-1073 CE) Diagram of Ultimate Polarity, a Ru feels the entire universe to be a constantly creative process, a spontaneous emergence of renewable cosmic events. Given this, Ru try their best to manifest this sublime cosmic creativity within the human world in a uniquely human, that is, in an humane (仁, ren) way, in order to build a dynamically harmonious society in which every human being can enjoy the achievements of human civilization and thereby live a fulfilled human life. Under this metaphysical view, we can more appropriately understand the implied Ruist meaning of Du Fu’s poem: in early Spring when the cosmic vital-energy of Tian is at its most dynamic and promising, a Ru is portrayed as enjoying a humble life in his cottage, understanding and planning his career over a temporal range of ‘thousands of years’ and in a spatial span of ‘tens of thousands of li.’ In a Ruist terms, we can say the poem is a magnificent expression of the spirituality of a Ru noble-person (君子, Junzi).

Translation and Comment: Bin Song

Editor: David Schiller, Paul Blair, Andrew Linscott.

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