Du Fu: Chinese Mythscape

Chinese mythology was never conveniently collected. Hesiod, with a Greek’s passion for systematizing, and Ovid, with a Roman’s passion for history, synthesized their peoples’ visionary explorations into linear narratives. Few other peoples were quite so tidy. Chinese mythology is best explored as it appears in literary allusions. I offer here selections from Du Fu’s first book of poetry that open onto vistas of the further world.

With Upward Gaze Abashed

Sacred Mount Tai in Shandong Province,
holiest of the five great heights
that define the five directions
(North, South, East, West and Up),
Tai, mountain of the East,
of the emperor’s yearly sacrifice
to heaven and earth,
mountain of the people’s pilgrimages
all year long,
with upward glance abashed by such fierce peaks,
what can I possibly say?

Outstretched below you were the ancient states
of the great Jo dynasty, sprawling Chee
and little Yu (Confucius’ home).
While I stand dumb, these lands
express themselves in ceaseless green.

The Creator poured jungly lushness
into these valleys like ritual wine
filling a bronze vessel.
Their sunlit and shadowed slopes
show the battling principles Yin and Yang
in clear-cut opposition,
my exhilarated heart subtly drums
an accompaniment to their struggle,
as I study the mists that float along the slopes
like smoke from their noiseless warfare.

Tai’s summit emerges from layered cloudbanks
like an island in midair;
squinting I can make out the birds
that come and go visiting it.
One day I, like these, will be equal to your steepness,
meet your abrupt summit
where the whole mountain range
becomes small enough
to see in a single

Lakeside Banquet

The Jurist Lyoo Jyoo
and Magistrate Jung who lives near Stone Gate Mountain,
give a banquet

The lake’s cold waters are transparent
as the autumn sky above them,
and just as bottomless.

A pleasing melancholy,
suited to the season, calms the hearts of all the guests.

Taking a break from his duties,
the skilled official Lyoo Jyoo
gladly saddled up, set out
to find his friend the magistrate.

Perfect peers,
this pair, like two matching jewels.
Their encounter inspired a splendid
(and far from inexpensive) feast.

Now, as evening descends, the bamboo flutes
are played so artfully that even the dragon
who lives in the depths of the lake
hums along.


A letter arrived from my brother in Lin City: severe rainstorms, the Yellow River flooding, danger to the dikes and dames. As an official in the records department of the Water Ministry, these matters caused him tremendous stress. I sent this poem to reassure him.

The two great principles that order our world,
Heaven and Earth, have ordained a vast gathering
of wind and rainclouds overhead.

Water pouring down from the mountains
funnels through gullies to inundate the plains
in great waves. The Yellow River overflows
its banks, bursting barriers,
rushing free all across Shandong province
till it pours its breakers
into the deep cold East China Sea

The governors are sick with worry and grief,
the counties shout complaints and accusations.

My younger brother thought he’d found himself
a comfortable undemanding perch
as a lesser records clerk
in the Office of Dikes and River Management—

yesterday I received his letter,
a foot-long scroll. “We’re working weekends,
all through the nights, hammering planks
for retaining walls, filling these barriers
with pounded earth, doing too late
that which is insufficient,
to achieve the impossible.

“Back around one thousand BC,
King Mu of Jo, returned from his journey
to the eldest, most august fertility goddess,
the Queen Mother of the West—

“he had to cross an enormous river:
innumereable turtles
and masses of alligators
offered him their armored backs
as stepping stones—
that’s the kind of trick I’m expected to repeat.

“On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month
the goddess Jee Nu (visible to us
as Vega, a star to the east of Milky Way)
is reunited with her earthly paramour

“Nyoo Lang (who twinkles now, far from her,
as a star in the constellation Aquila).

“These sundered lovers,
the Chinese Selene and Endymion,
are rejoined one night each spring
when thousands of compassionate magpies
pause in their migration to span the skies,

“a living bridge by which those stars of love
cross the intervening deep of night sky.

“But I look to heaven in vain.
No winged legions flock to my assistance.

“South of Yan, the wind plows unimpeded
across the only too well irrigated fields.

“North of Jee, the tall grass is seaweed now.
Mussels cluster on submerged city walls,
conches feed along algaed battlements.

“In the new and endless marshland, dragons hatch;
the younger ones whose horns have yet to grow
play in the waves.

“Where once was a valley, there’s now a lake;
only the peaks of rocky hills
peek out of the waters, significant tips,
eloquent as autumn’s last leaf.

“Where peasant huts huddled by hundreds
you only discern, here and there, the top
of an orphan tree. If the skies cleared to blue
you’d see no boats on all this lake.

“Water, water everywhere
and not a sail in sight.

“To be frank with you, brother, I feel as lost
as a peach tree twig torn from its branch
by the rushing flood and cast up on a bank.”

To which I replied,

“The I Ching says,
Perseverance brings good fortune,
it furthers one to cross the great water.

“In spite of all, trust Heaven.
The shore before you
is only land’s limit—not the end of the world.

“You’re no slip of driftwood
but a stout bough grown
from the gods’ own Peachtree of Immortality—

“a rod to fish up a giant sea turtle
(descended from the ones who carry
the continents on their backs ).

“You’ll haul from the flood some impossible
and unexpected island of safety,
though at present all seems sunk.”

Li Bai, Poet in Residence

I passed two years here
in the capital, Lwo Yang—
not so much a stay as an extended visit.

I’ve felt like a guest at best,
and never a very welcome one.

All that I had to put up with left me
well sated with cliques and social scheming;

I’ve learned how the excluded brood.
I arrived, like a primitive, a child of nature,
astonished by the rotten meat civilized people eat,
the stink of it hidden by sauces
sickeningly rich.

I was starved for plain, blameless vegetarian food
that maintains life and leaves the spirit pure.

To restore the health of my complexion
I would need the magic plants
which Taoist adepts know how to collect.

The limits of my purse don’t permit me
to purchase a little elixir of life
from a reputable alchemist—

assuming that anyone living today
could find their way through forest and mountain
to the untraceable places
where the rare and requisite herbs yet grow.

Li Bai contrived to escape
the stifling titles and exhausting formalities
of being distinguished poet-scholar in residence
in the gilded museum of the palace library.

He escaped with his life, returned to the wild
where he’ll busy himself with genuine mysteries,
garner such wealth as only holy mendicants
possess—the calm knowledge that his soul’s his own.

Perhaps he wanders now through Hunan,
towards Kai Fung, the old capital,
a far more genteel and less political city,
or it may be he culls the flowers of immortality
that only flourish in remote
and unfrequented lands.

Riverside Grotto

On a banquet held in a grotto on the estate of the Emperor’s son-in law.

In his lordship’s shady riverside grotto
(the entrance nearly hidden
by the fine and fog-like
mist from a waterfall),

the summer mats, woven of choice bamboo,
shine translucent red-brown
like polished carnelian,
and tempt the guest to linger.

Why indeed rise?
Strong spring ale is served
in cups of frail transparent amber.
An icy draught, the jade-colored beer
is ladled, foaming agate-white,
from a jar in a cold sweat.

Whither did we wander when we left behind
the thatched hall and the riverside hills?
Have the stone steps to this grotto
led us, in some mysterious way,
up to a misty wind-cool cliff
among the clouds—

to a world of princesses
in intimidating towers,
of valley-dwelling Taoist hermits
possessing magic powers?

—the jewelry of the ladies tinkles and clinks
from time to time,
otherworldly as a distant temple wind-chime.

Farewell, Kong Chao Fu

who is leaving his government post in the capital under cover of sick leave. Also a greeting to Li Bai whom Kong will meet on his journey.

Kong Chao Fu shakes his head.
He won’t consent to stay,
he’s heading east and seaward,
all the way to the foggy coast.

While the scrolls of his poetry will long be treasured here
in the world that’s bounded by earth and sky
(the realm of mortals), he’s bound for Pung Lai,
the island of the blessed,

where he means to flick his bamboo fishing rod
and cast his line over transparent bay.

Peering down from his boat,
he’ll see coral forest
where silver fish hover among the precious branches,
a lucent, jeweled world.

He’ll rove over Pung Lai’s mountains towering
over deep ravines,
passing vast swamps, home to dragons and snakes.

Far, far away,
in a landscape chiaroscuro’d
in the dusking of the dawn
when risen wind begins to rustle in the jungle
and the morning has the chill of a day in early spring,

he’ll come upon Jee Nu,
the Jade Emperor’s daughter,
returned to earth in her chariot of clouds
to point him the way to the Great Empty,
the final reality! She’ll say,
“Here’s the path of the mystics.”

At that moment  he’ll put on immortality:
imperishable flesh, a skeleton of gems.

Can mere worldlings fathom
how such wonders come to be?

We don’t begrudge him these attainments:
he will leave behind the mortal condition.
If we wish to delay him, it’s because his transformation
will mean that in a sense he’s lost to us,
—a consideration bitter as death!

But alas, neither wealth or status
can detain him here. He isn’t tempted
by what concerns this world,
matters evanescent
as the dew on summer morning grass.

Tsai, our host, Tsai the serene,
Tsai who says so little because he thinks so much—
on this clear evening he’s set out the wine
and we sit on the terrace, savoring the view.

When the last inconsolable notes
of Tsai’s zither fall silent,
we notice how moonlight
gleams on the bamboo mats,

and wonder how many years it will be
till we heard from Kong again?

How long does it take for a letter
to get here from the Great Empty?

You’ll begin your journey, Kong, 
by going down the south coast,
below Shanghai, past the cave on Mount Kwai
where rest the remains of the mythical emperor
Yu (the Chinese Noah).

If you run into Li Bai,
say I hope he’s doing well,
that I’d love to have his news,
convey to him this greeting
from his old friend Fu.

Rabinowitz’ translation of Du Fu’s book of poems, A House of Visiting Cards, is now available from Amazon.

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