At Fajing Temple
By Du Fu
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Running at knifepoint to a farther district,
I strove my strongest but now am gutted weak,
And as I veer through mountains, gashed in spirit,
An ancient temple shatters my grief on a peak.
Its cleaned green moss charms with a gentle glimmer.
The bamboo-sheathes are clustered, cold and bare.
The river maunders at the foot of the mountain.
Raindrops hang light from the pine trees through new air.
The clouds' sun-fissured cover leaks pure morning.
Primeval dawn shines, hides and shines once more.
Vermilion roof-tiles' glint sporadic welcome.
A different gleam tints every window and door.
Dreaming while hunched on my staff, I forgot my journey.
With high noon hot on me, I struggle awake.
The cuckoo beyond is calling to go, to go.
That temple's narrowing path I dare not take.
This poem is in many interesting ways a mirror-image of Robert Frost's Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. Both poems illustrate on the temptation to lose oneself away from the world (and perhaps away from life) balanced against, and overruled by, the need to fulfill worldly responsibilities and expectations. For Robert Frost, the temptation lies in the natural world of winter, whereas for Du Fu it lies in a man-made temple built with the express purpose of being apart from the hustle and harrowing of the world. The key point of difference is that Robert Frost was able to find such grim seduction in nature itself, whereas Du Fu could only find it in a human-built sanctuary.
The west tends to Romanticize the beauties of nature (even, in Frost's case, the deathly dark white of chill winter) as something to long for, conceiving of the "natural" world, in quasi-Rousseauian fashion, as a refuge from the "unnatural" hubbub of cities and such. For the westerner, going on a hike is a pleasant way to "get back to the land."
For the medieval Chinese, the desire to "get away from it all" is intermingled with a more realistic and pressing awareness that going out into the wilderness means not just being restfully alone, but also arrestingly lonely. The distinction between non-human Nature (天, tiān) and humanity (人, rén) is not so easily breached. Nature is a thing apart from humans, does not care about them, does not have the faculty of care at all, and is not the instrument of a benevolent God. The Western cliché of "the birds are singing for me" is oxymoronic in much of medieval Chinese literature. Nature, unless you're a Daoist adept, can only be made purely enjoyable by taming it.
Thus Du Fu saw solace in a temple as a bastion of humanity apart from the world, whereas Frost could delude himself into seeing cold deathly woodland as inviting. But Du Fu's sentiment is in concert with Frost's last line. For the two both have promises to keep.
(Medieval Chinese transcription thanks to a system developed by David Branner)
|Han Characters |
|Medieval Chinese |
pap3a kèing3a zì3d
syen3b ngwi3bx syeik3b the1 tsyou3b
mán3bx gáng3 tsyung3b lau1 khúo1
zyen3b syang3 sran2b gheing2a syem3
dzrou3b phè1 ngei2a zì3d kúo1
dzyan3b wan3by peik3b san3b dzèing3b
sau4 sreik2a ghan1 thak1 dzúo3c
ghwei1a ghwei1a sran2b ken1 sywí3c
nyám3b nyám3b zung3c dzyàng3 ghúo3c
sat3b ghwen3a mung1b tsheing3b dzyen3b
tshruo3b nyet3b èi4 bòu3b thúo1
tsyuo3c meing2b panH1 kwang1 kwéing4
ghúo1 yóu3b tshàn1 khé1 srúo3c
truoQ3c tshreik2b mangH3 dzan4 gi3d
tshywet3b mung3b yiQ3d deing4 nguoQ1
meing4 meing4 tsiQ3d kwi3by kauH4
mi3a keingH4 pet3a kamQ1b tshuoQ3c
|Modern Chinese |
Fǎ jìng sì
Shēn wēi shì tā zhōu,
Miǎn qiǎng zhōng láokǔ.
Shén shāng shān xíng shēn,
Chóu pò yá sì gǔ.
Chán juān bì xiǎn jìng,
Xiāo suǒ hán tuò jù.
Huí huí shān gēn shuǐ,
Rǎn rǎn sōng shàng yǔ.
Xiè yún méng qīng chén,
Chū rì yì fù tǔ.
Zhū méng bàn guāng jiǒng,
Hù yǒu càn kě shǔ.
Zhǔ cè wàng qián qī,
Chū mèng yǐ tíng wǔ.
Míng míng zǐ guī jiào,
Wēi jìng bù gǎn qǔ.