Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage

Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage     —by Jinny Batterson

China probably does not have a “National Poetry Month,” as is celebrated in the U.S. in April, but poetry is taught in schools across China from an early age.  Most university students can recite some of the most famous Chinese poems from memory. China reveres its poets, especially ancient ones.  During some of China’s more turbulent periods, poets gave voice to people’s hopes and concerns. They wrote about nature themes; they wrote about history, about dreams, about loss, about transcendence.  Du Fu, an itinerant poet who lived during part of the Tang Dynasty (712-770), was witness to one of its most disastrous episodes, the An-Shi Rebellion, which started in 756 and pitted the emperor at the time against several powerful warlords.

The rebels captured the capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an), forcing many, including the emperor and the poet, who’d been living there for a decade, to flee.  Du Fu later moved to Chengdu, where friends helped him build a modest thatched home near a small stream.  There he wrote many of his most famous poems. His life was difficult. Bouts of relative poverty plagued him and his family. Social conditions continued to be unsettled in many parts of the country. He lived in several other locales after Chengdu, and was often on the road for extended periods.

In 2009, I had a chance to visit Du Fu’s cottage and the park surrounding it with one of my best students of English.  Having her to serve as translator increased my appreciation of the poet, his poetry, and the park.  The existing cottage is a replica, reconstructed several times, most recently during the 19th century, I think. It is a modest dwelling, with an actual thatched roof. The furnishings are sparse. One room is devoted to a gift shop/library with collections of poetry and calligraphy for sale.  I bought an English translation of some of Du Fu’s best known verse, but have since lost it in a move. I don’t know any Du Fu poems by heart, not even in translation.

As I recall, the cottage is a fairly small part of a larger oasis of greenery in this part of Chengdu. There is a hall of poets, with statues and inscriptions describing the life and work of other leading Tang and Song dynasty poets, including Li Bai, Wang Wei, Su Shi, and Lu You. In one section of the park, the sidewalk has been inlaid with short quotations from some of China’s most famous poets.  “Rebecca,” my student, tried translating a few of them for me, but poetry is notoriously difficult to render into a different language.

A number of Du Fu’s poems have been posted online in English versions.  One of my favorites is  “Lone Wild Goose,”  a poem he wrote near the end of a life disrupted by war, poverty, and frequent relocations:

Alone, the wild goose refuses food and drink,
his calls searching for the flock.

Who feels compassion for that single shadow
vanishing in a thousand distant clouds?

You watch, even as it flies from sight,
its plaintive calls cutting through you.

The noisy crows ignore it:
the bickering, squabbling multitudes.

There’s ample evidence that Du Fu’s troubles in later life made him more empathetic toward many of China’s peasants, whose lives had also been disrupted by the fighting and chaos of the period. But life was not uniformly severe. There’s also evidence that Du Fu and Li Bai (701-762), his slightly older contemporary, the most famous Tang poet, were at times able to spend evenings together among their fellows, drinking wine and challenging each other to poetry competitions.


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