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Ancient China

Tu Fu, 712-770 CE.

Translated by David Hinton





In spring mountains, alone, I set out to find you.

Axe strokes crack-crack and quit. Silence doubles.


I pass snow and ice lingering along cold streams, then,

Late light wavering at Stone Gate, enter these woods.


Deer graze here each morning, for you harm nothing.

And because you want nothing, auras of silver and gold


Grace nights. Facing you on a whim[1] in bottomless dark, the way

Here lost - I feel it drifting, this whole empty boat.






Clouds summit above T'ai Mountain, peak

And Summit, serene as full-river voices

In vacant space. Lightning skitters swallows

On painted screens. Fish dip back below


Steady rains, deepen and drift. When I

Hear you outside, I am drinking cheap wine.

Ashamed of mud, calling Bring your horse

Right up to the porch here, I invite you in.





Autumn returns, and again we are cast thistledown together

On the winds. The elixir of immortality has eluded us -


Ko Hung[2] must be ashamed. Days drunk and singing too loud,

Given to the wind, yet resolute - so brave, and for whom?





War-carts clatter and creak,

horses stomp and splutter-

each wearing quiver and bow, the war-bound men pass.

Mothers and fathers, wives and children - they all flock

alongside, farewell dust so thick Hsien-yang Bridge

disappears. They get everywhere in the way, crying


cries to break against heaven, tugging at war clothes.

On the roadside, when a passerby asks

war-bound men, war-bound men say simply: Our lots are drawn often.

Taken north at fifteen, we guard the Yellow River. Taken

west at forty, we man frontier camps.  Village elders

tied our head-cloths then. And now we return, our hair

white, only to be sent out again to borderlands,


lands where blood swells like sea-water. And Emperor Wu's

imperial dreams of conquest roll on. Haven't you heard

that east of the mountains, in our Han

homeland, ten hundred towns and

ten tousand villages are overrun by thorned weeds,

that even though strong wives keep hoeing and plowing,

you can't tell where crops are and aren't? It's worst for

mighty Ch'in warriors: the more bitter war they outlive,

the more they are herded about like chickens and dogs.

Though you are kind to ask, sir,

how could we complain? Imagine

this winter in Ch'in. Their men

still haven't returned, and those

clerks are out demanding taxes.


Taxes! How could they pay taxes?

Even a son's birth is tragic now.

People prefer a daughter's birth,

a daughter's birth might at least end in marriage nearby.

But a son's birth ends in an open grave who knows


where. You haven't seen how bones from ancient times

lie, bleached and unclaimed along the shores of

Sky-Blue seas - how the weeping of old ghosts is

joined by new voices, the gray sky by twittering rain.







So far from my village - sent so far

away to the Chiao River. Reporting

dates are final, and nets of calamity tangle

anyone who resists. Our lands are rich


enough and more for a king, what good

can a little more ground bring?

Shouldering my spear, lost, parents'

love lost - tasting silence, I go.



I left home long ago. Now, the early

abuse is over. My bones a father's love,

my flesh a mother's - how are they so

broken in a son still alive to guess at


his death (shaking free of its reins,

a horse tearing blue silk from my hands, or

after inching down a mountainside, eighty

thousand feet, trying for a fallen flag)?



In a river of muted cries, I sharpen

my sword, longing for the heart's

silence long laced with cries of stricken

people. But the water bleeds, the edge

cuts my hand. Once devoted to his

country, what has a good man to resent?

Heroes live forever in Unicorn Pavilion,

and the bones of war rot quickly away.



Always some clerk to scare-up men and

send them out. The frontiers are well-

supplied  Death certain as life,

we advance. And still, officers rage.


Meeting a friend on the road, I send

letters home . . . . O, how are we cast so

far from one another, broken apart, never

to scrape by in sorrow together again?



Distant, ten thousand miles and more

distant, they take us to join vast armies.

Soldiers come to joy and grief by chance,

how could generals hear everything? Riders


appear across the river. Then suddenly

they arrive, ten hundred Mongol brigades.

From this rankless beginning, how long

until my reputation is made and confirmed?



In drawing bows, draw the strongest;

in using arrows, use the longest.

To shoot men, first shoot their horses;

to take enemies, first take their generals.


But killing must be kept within limits:

a country is nothing without borders. Far

beyond any claim of defense, what is ours

now with all this slaughter and death?



Pushing our horses hard through mixed

rain and snow, we enter high mountains.

The trail narrows. Our fingers breaking

through layers of ice, we hug frozen rock.


So far from our Chinese moon,

building walled forts - will we ever

return? At dusk, clouds drift away

south, clouds I cannot mount and ride.



The Mongols descend on our positions.

For hundreds of miles, dust-filled

winds darken skies. A few brave

sword strokes drive armies before us.


We capture their famed chieftain and

present him, tied by the neck, when

we return. Preparing to march, we stand

in formation. One win - so much talk.


In ten years and more at war, how could I

avoid all honor? People so treasure it,

I thought of telling my story, but sounding

like all the others would be too shameful.


War flickers throughout our heartland

and rages steadily along the frontiers.

With such fine men chasing ambition

everywhere, who can elude savage beggary?





The songs over pepper wine have ended.

Friends jubilant among friends, we start

A stabled racket of horses. Lanterns

Blaze, scattering crows. As dawn breaks,


The fortieth year passes[4] in my flight toward

Evening light. Who can change it, who

Stop for even a single embrace - this dead

Dazzling drunk in the wings of life we live?






Meandering River desolate, autumn skies deep-withered

bits of blown lotus and chestnut drift. Lamenting this


wanderer handed-down into old age is empty: White

pebbles and shoreline sand also chafe back and forth.

A wailing swan, alone, cries out in search of its kind.


Singing that which occurs, neither modern nor ancient,

my rising song only breaks against bushes and trees.

And those houses stand, in their lavish parade, countless.


I welcome this heart of ash. Dear brother, dear little

niece - why so hurt, why these tears falling like rain?


I have asked enough answers of heaven for one life.

Enough, having hemp and mulberry fields there,


to settle near South Mountain, in Tu-ling. Riding

with Li Kuang[5] in simple clothes, I will end my

failing years shooting phantom tigers as they appear.




In distant woods, summer heat thin,

you stop by. It could be in a village

somewhere, my little tumbledown

house near the city's south tower -


neighbors open and simple-hearted,

needs easily filled. Call across

for wine, the family to the west

gladly hands a pot over the fence,


fresh, unstrained. We spread mats

beside the stream. Clear winds arrive

carelessly, and you imagine autumn

stunning already. Everywhere, nesting


birds bicker, thickening cicada songs

fill lush leaves - who calls my home

among this racket of things secluded?

We linger out flawless, dusk-tinted


blossoms on water - a world enough now,

enough and more. And without worry, the

winepot still far from empty, I go

again with schemes aplenty for more.





I step out for a moment, then back.

Foundering rain-clouds haven't clanged;

ditchwater babbles everywhere. Thinking

of you, I grow thin. I mutter songs


on the west porch. Meals pass indistinct

as night and day. Meandering River a mere

half-step away - and yet, meeting you

there is impossible now . . . . How much


more must earth's simple people bear?

Their farms are beyond hope. And if we

scold the cloud-spirit, who will ever

patch these leak-sprung heavens? O,


sun and moon lost to a haze and waste

world, twitter and howl. Noble men

driven into twisted paths, simple-hearted

people, frantic, run themselves ragged.


Even the exalted South Mountain might

already have sunk and drifted away.

What is it for - here at my eastern fence,

this holiday confusion of chrysanthemums?


Your new poems? Our shared weakness

for wine? Cut them - I'll cut the yellow

bloomed things and fill my sleeves

far too beautifully for nothing today.




Tonight at Fu-chou, this moon she watches

Alone in our room. And my little, far-off

Children, too young to understand what keeps me

Away, or even remember Ch'ang-an. By now,


Her hair will be mist-scented, her jade-white

Arms chilled in its clear light. When

Will it find us together again, drapes drawn

Open, light traced where it dries our tears?





Now fine homes in ten prefectures have dead sons

making water with their blood on Ch'en-t'ao Marsh.


An early winter's panoramic waste: crystal sky,

the silence of war. Forty thousand dead in a day.


Mongol battalions return. Their arrows bathed blood

black, drunk in the markets, they sing Mongol songs.


And we face north to mourn, another day conjuring

our army's appearance passing into hopeful night.





Enough new ghosts now to mourn any war,

And a lone old grief-sung man. Clouds at

Twilight's ragged edge foundering, wind

Buffets a dance of headlong snow. A ladle


Lies beside this jar drained of emerald

Wine. The stove's flame-red mirage lingers.

News comes from nowhere. I sit here,

Spirit-wounded, tracing words onto air.





Rivers and mountains survive broken countries.

Spring returns. The city grows lush again.

Blossoms scatter tears thinking of us, and this

Separation in a bird's cry startles the heart.


Beacon-fires[8] have burned through three months.

By now, letters are worth ten thousand in gold.

My hair is white and thinning so from all this

Worry - how will I ever keep my hairpin in?





Apart still, and already oriole songs

Fill warm spring days. Changing seasons

Startle me here without you, my little

Sage. Who talks philosophy with you now?


Clear streams, empty mountain paths, our

Simple village home among ancient trees . . .

In grief thinking of you, sleep: sunning

On the veranda, I nod off beneath blue skies.






Spring diminished with each petal in flight, these

Ten thousand wind-tossed flakes overwhelm me with grief.


Now the last blossoms are passing before my eyes

(All that anguish), I can't afford to scrimp on wine.


Kingfishers nest in small, lakeside pavilions. Beside

Stately tombs at the park's edge, unicorns lounge.


Joy is the nature of things. Look closely - where is

This fleeting consequence you've tangled your life in?



Day after day, I pawn spring clothes when court ends

And return from the river thoroughly drunk. By now,


Wine debts await me wherever I go. But then, life's

Seventy years have rarely ever been lived out. And


Shimmering butterflies are plunging deep into blossoms

Here. Dragonflies quavering in air prick the water.


Drift wide, O wind and light - sail together

Where we kindred in this moment will never part.





Death at least gives separation repose.

Without death, its grief can only sharpen.

You wander out in malarial southlands,

and I hear nothing of you, exiled


old friend. Knowing I think of you

always now, you visit my dreams, my heart

frightened it is no living spirit

I dream. Endless miles - you come


so far from the Yangtze's sunlit maples

night shrouds the passes when you return.

And snared as you are in their net,

with what bird's wings could you fly?


Filling my room to the roof-beams, the moon

sinks. You nearly linger in its light,

but the waters deepen in long swells,

unfed dragons - take good care old friend.





Borderlands return no one. Autumn comes,

Season of fulling-stones[9]. Soon, bitter

Cold months will sharpen separation's

Long ache. Tired, but with all my


Woman's strength, hurrying to send them

Deep into Great Wall country, I pound

Clothes here in the courtyard. And you,

My love, listen to sounds beyond the sky.





Though bitter, juniper berries are food

For immortals, and cirrus flushed with morning

Light. But people are common things,

These tangles of trouble my only life:


A frozen well each morning and no stove,

Cold nights without quilts . . . . In fear

Of shame an empty purse brings, I hold

In mine this one coin I keep, peering in.





In one curve, cradling our village, the clear river

Flows past. On long summer days, the business of solitude


Fills this river village. Swallows in the rafters

Come and go carelessly. On the water, gulls nestle


Tenderly together. My wife draws a paper go board,

And tapping at needles, the kids contrive fishhooks.


Often sick, I need drugs and herbs - but what more,

Come to all this, what more could a simple man ask?





I've had asthma now for years. But here

Beside this river, our ch'i-sited[10]

Home is new. Even simple noise scarce,

Its healing joy and ease are uncluttered.


When someone visits our thatch house, I

Call the kids to straighten my farmer's cap,

And from the sparse garden, gather young

Vegetables - a small handful of friendship.





Still a child's heart at fifteen . . . . I remember

running back and forth, sturdy as a brown calf.


And in September, courtyard dates and pears ripe,

I could scramble up a thousand trees in a day.


How suddenly it all passed. Already fifty, I rarely

walk, or even get up. If not asleep, I sit resting.


Today, forcing small talk and laughter for a host,

I grieve over the hundred worries crowding my life.


And when I return, the house bare as ever, my poor

wife mirrors the look she knows too well on my face.


Silly kids, still ignorant of courtesies due a father -

crying at the kitchen door, angry, they demand food.





Clear autumn. Beside the well, cold wu trees. I pass

Night in the river city, alone, candles guttering low.


Grieving in the endless dark, horns call to themselves.

The moon drifts - no one to see its exquisite color.

Wind and dust, one calamity after another. And frontier

Passes all desolation and impossible roads, no news


Arrives. After ten desperate, headlong years, driven

Perch to perch, I cling to what peace one twig holds.






K'uei-chow women, hair turned half-white, forty years

old, or fifty, and still sold into no husband's home:


no market for brides in this relentless ruin of war,

they live one long lament, nothing but grief to embrace.


Here, a tradition of seated men keeps women on their feet:

men sit inside doors and gates, women bustle in and out.


When they return, nine in ten carry firewood - firewood

they sell to keep the family going. Old as they are, they


still wear shoulder-length hair in twin virgin-knots,

matching hairpins of silver holding mountain leaves and


wildflowers. If not struggling precariously up to market,

they ravage themselves working salt mines for pennies.


Make-up and jewelry a shambles of sobs and tears (indecent

little place), clothes cold, besieged at the foot of cliffs


if, as people say, these Wu Mountain women are such

frightful things, how could Chao-chun's village be so near?





Chiang-han mountains looming, impassable,

A cloud drifts over this far corner of earth.

Year after year, nothing familiar, nothing

Anywhere but one further end of the road.


Here, Wang Ts'an found loss and confusion,

And Ch'u Yuan cold grief. My heart already

Broken in quiet times - and look at me,

Each day wandering a new waste of highway.





Traveling Chaing-han, lone savant spent

Between Heaven and Earth, I dream return.

A flake of cloud sky's distance, night

Remains timeless in the moon's solitude.


My heart grows strong still at dusk.

In autumn wind, I am nearly healed. Long ago,

Old horses were given refuge, not sent out.

The long road is not all they're good for.

[1] On a whim: The recluse Wang Hui-chih (Lt. 388) set out "on a whim" to visit a friend. When he arrived at the friend's house, however, the mood had vanished, so he simply returned home without seeing his friend.

[2] Ko Hung: Taoist alchemist and writer (283-343) famous for discovering how to produce the elixir of immortality. There were two schools of Taoism: esoteric (concerned primarily with the pursuit of longevity) and philosophic (following Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu). Tu Fu considered the esoteric school humorous, at best, but he took the philosophic school quite seriously.

[3] Being with one's family for New Year's Eve was of great importance (Tu Wei was only a distant cousin, not part of Tu Fu's immediate family). The family stayed up all night celebrating. Every light in the house was kept burning and, to keep evil spirits out, doors and windows were sealed closed with strips of paper until just before dawn, when everyone went outside.

[4] On New Year's Day, the first clay of spring, all Chinese counted themselves a year older.

[5] Li Kuang: Han Dynasty military commander (d. 125 B.C.) who lived in the mountains near Tu-ling. He once encountered a fierce tiger and shot an arrow at it. But when the arrow hit its target, Li saw that the tiger was, in fact, only a stone. Li rarely spoke.

[6] This is perhaps the first Chinese poem to address such romantic sentiments to a wife (it is especially striking here because the poem is a lu-shih). The tropes Tu uses to describe his wife had often been used to describe courtesans and court women, the conventional objects of such romantic feelings.

[7] Ch'en-t'ao: site just west of Ch'ang-an where a large imperial army suffered a disastrous defeat on November 17. The army, which was under the command of Fang Kuan, had been sent to recapture the capital.

[8] Beacon-fires: In times of war, neighboring garrisons would light beacon-fires each night at the same time to signal one another that they were still secure.

[9] Fulling-stones: To make clothes, women would full cloth by beating it on a stone with a stick or mallet. When it appears in poetry, fulling cloth generally indicates a woman's longing for a distant lover (the man for whom the clothes are being made), no doubt because of the act's unmistakable eroticism. It is usually linked with autumn and war because fulling heavy cloth to make winter clothes for soldiers fighting on the frontier was a kind of grief-filled autumn ritual for the women who were left alone at home.

[10] Ch'i-sited: The site for a new house would be chosen with the help of a diviner who used a divining rod and a special type of astrological compass. It was thought that the different features of a landscape determine the movement of ch'i, the universal breath or life-giving principle. A site would be chosen by determining how a family's particular characteristics (in this case, a leading consideration was Tu's health problems) harmonized with these movements. The Chinese word for asthma (huan-ch'i) literally means "afflicted ch'i."





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