An old man marking time,
Returning home, his joys are few.
My darling son clutches my knee,
Dreading that I will leave again.
I remember when we sought out cool spots,
And walked among the trees beside the pool.
Now, the North Wind’s whistling is strong,
And I’ve a hundred different worries.
At least, I know, the wheat harvest goes well,
Already, I catch the drip of the mash-press
For now, there is enough to fill my cup,
Comfort for one near the end.
May you live in interesting times
There is an apocryphal quote attributed to the ancient Chinese that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” The quote was intended as a curse, predicting and hoping that one’s wish for excitement will be of the worst kind.
This curse explains the life of Du Fu at the time of Tang China’s An Lushan Rebellion.
For a period of eight years beginning in 755, China experienced the horror of war and famine the likes of which it had not experienced before on such a massive scale. Barbarians invaded from the north, the emperor fled, the capital fell, the dynasty teetered on the edge of collapse, the peasant caught in the middle of the conflict starved or was impressed into the war, the outcome was always in doubt. If we take the census records as an accounting of the damage done, then China lost more than half its population in the span of these terrible 8 years.
Du Fu in a time of war
Du Fu was an accomplished poet and mediocre civil servant, as his head-strong ways often rubbed administrators and the emperor the wrong way. Nevertheless he was tolerated for his great poetic abilities. When the capital of Chang’an fell, Du Fu had been away. Asa precaution, he took his family to a Qiang village where his newborn son died, then attempted to join the court of the new emperor, but he was captured by the rebels and taken to Chang’an. He escaped after several months and made his way to the court in exile in Sichuan.
That fall the Imperial Court gave him leave to visit his family, which is the source of the three poems entitled Qiang Village.
If the first poem was about the surprise of one finding his way home and the joy felt at homecoming, then the second is about the fleeting nature of that joy. We enjoy what little comfort we can find while living in such interesting times.
At the end of his life, Du Fu was the proverbial peripatetic poet. He died in 768, five years after the rebellion was put down. At the time he was living in Hunan Province. He was survived by his wife and two remaining sons.
Pinyin and Chinese
qiāng cūn ( èr)
wǎn suì pò tōu shēng
huán jiā shǎo huān qù
jiāo ér bù lí xī
wèi wǒ fù què qù
yì xī hǎo zhuī liáng
gù rào chí biān shù
xiāo xiāo běi fēng jìn
fǔ shì jiān bǎi lǜ
lài zhī hé shǔ shōu
yǐ jué zāo chuáng zhù
rú jīn zú zhēn zhuó
qiě yòng wèi chí mù