Tag Archives: Chinese poetry

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.


Music and Friendship

Music and Friendship  —by Jinny Batterson

Poets and writers have long proclaimed music a universal language.  Whenever I’ve taught in China, I’ve incorporated music into my English lessons and programs.  But learning goes both ways—some of the first Chinese words I learned, beyond the very basic “ni hao,” “zai jian,” and “xie xie,” (hello, goodbye, and thank you), came through a song.

In 2002, during a short teaching stint in Zhengzhou, Henan, I was presenting a lesson about Chinese immigration to the United States. The first large-scale Chinese settlement in America came in the wake of the 1848 discovery of gold in California. Several thousand Chinese young men, mostly from the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, crossed the Pacific then in search of “gold mountain.” China was undergoing hardship and turmoil—it seemed a good time to leave in search of a better life. I used simple tools to supplement my lecture and to connect the students to these adventuresome ancestors of theirs. First I drew a rough outline map of the U.S., pointing out where California was. Then I wrote on the chalk board some lyrics of the folk song “Clementine,” honing in on vocabulary about “miners” and “49ers.”  After more explanation and a couple of solos of the lyric, I tried to get the students to sing along—many did.

At that time, most Chinese students were still shy about asking questions in class, especially outside major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou. The school where I taught this lesson was a large public junior middle school (roughly equivalent to U.S. grades 7-9) in a mid-sized provincial capital. At the end of our singing, I saw several students looking puzzled. I was resigned to not knowing what had intrigued them. I expected them just to sit quietly, waiting to see what the strange foreign teacher would do next. They surprised me. One of the bolder students raised his hand.

“Excuse me, teacher,” he began.  “We all know that tune, but it has different words.”

He and several of his cohorts then proceeded to teach me the Chinese “Happy New Year” song—“Xinnian Hao,” whose tune seems to have crossed the Pacific, possibly in both directions.

A bit later in my China travels, I was exposed to a classical Chinese lyric that has haunted me ever since:  “Dan Yuan Ren Chang Jiu,” loosely translatable as “Wishing We Last Forever.”  In the year 1076, Song dynasty poet Su Shi  composed the verse. At Mid-Autumn Festival (honoring the harvest moon, plus family and lovers’ reunions, occurring in September or early October by the Chinese lunar calendar), he spent the night drinking wine, looking at the full moon, and missing his long-lost brother. Toward morning, he wrote the characters of one of his best-known poems. With a modernized tune, the lyric was recorded in 1983 by Taiwanese singer Theresa Teng (Deng LiJun).  I first heard the song in 2007. At the end of my year’s teaching in 2009, my students sang me the song karaoke-style in farewell.  I’ve tried an Americanized adaptation below about long-distance friendships.  Click here for a link to the Theresa Teng Chinese version.

(To Friendship   —adapted by Jinny Batterson)

How bright the round moon shines—
Wine soaks this sorrow of mine,
How I long to see you,
Friends, just one more time.

The moon first waxes, then wanes,
‘Til just a sliver remains,
Riding high, cold, distant,
In the pre-dawn sky, just as lonesome as I.

Oceans may divide us,
Mountain ranges hide us,
Friendship’s still there.
Whether by pale moonlight
Or by noonday sunlight
We stay aware
Of others who care.

People have joys, sorrows, fears,
Journeys range both far and near.
Though we stay continents apart
And never meet again, treasured memories remain.