Visiting Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage
By Wang Yongli
If you visit Chengdu, the best place I can suggest for you visit is Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage. Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage is located in the suburbs of the city near to Huaxi temple. According to the history books of the Tang Dynasty, when the famous poet Du Fu first came to Chengdu, he had to beg a monk to shelter him in the temple. The resident monk named Fukong was kind and helped Du Fu to open up an acre of wasteland nearby. Du Fu's fifty-year old cousin also assisted him in planting some vegetables and trees and in building the thatched cottage. Beside the cottage lived an old wedge tree, which according to legend was more than 200 years old. But in one night, a great autumn rainstorm uprooted the tree and damaged the cottage. Watching the downpour from the broken roof, Du Fu wrote the famous poem "The Song of My Grass Hut Broken by the Autumn Wind". The poem has no superiors, not before and not after.
The Du Fu Thatched Cottage is not very large, having eight or nine rooms. The exterior and interior are very simple. Compared with the Temple of Marquis Wu, which is an adjacent attraction for tourists where they can remember Zhu Geliang, the prime minister of Shu country, Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage is a slum. But the garden of Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage is beautiful, with an agreeable environment. The meanders of a prattling brook are shaded with straggling willows, alder trees and a dense bamboo forest. The poetic and pictorial splendor gave Du Fu much inspiration and helped him to write down many poems that depicted the natural sceneries and won universal praise. Poems such as “Happy Rain on a Spring Night”: "The fine rain knows the fine season so well. It arrives timely at vernal nightfall. While it tiptoes on the trail of the spring breeze, it moistens everything in silence.” Or “A Quatrain”: "Two golden orioles are singing in the green willow; a flock of white egrets are soaring to the blue sky. Through my pane the snow of millennia is seen on West Hill. By my door the ship of myriads of miles from the East Wu moors nigh approaches.” Or "I hate the new pine for it cannot grow as high as 1,000 feet, and the ten thousand ill bamboo should be cut down." Or "Each branch of the willow is tender, while the pairs of loquats are so fragrant." And "Clouds mask the early crescent, while tree flowers send forth a delicate fragrance."
Du Fu is the greatest realism poet in the history of Chinese literature. He was born in Henan County in AD 712 and he died in a small wooden boat going from Yueyang to Changsha in AD 770. Du Fu wandered for his whole life. If, according to the standard that people of today use, whereby money and official tiles are used to judge a man’s success, you would say that Du Fu was a very unsuccessful man and a tragic figure. However, who of those rich in money and high in official positions, who lived a life of ease be as admired by later generations as Du Fu? The answer is none! There is no one like Du Fu, none who are loved and read from generation to generation. This is the reason that I visited Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage when I first arrived in Chengdu. I love Du Fu so much, and admire the hardships he faced in life and how he thought more about "How can ten million mansions be built to offer shelter for the people who are suffering from cold, and how can they be made to laugh with happiness from their hearts? How can they become as steady as a mountain to face the rainstorms?” His feelings of concern about the country and the people are so great that all readers should admire him. Besides, he contributed many good poems to Chinese literature and human civilization, becoming a brilliant member of the outstanding heritage of Chinese nation’s culture.
I enter into Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage and it is as if I am in a face-to-face with the great poet's tragedy. Shortly after his birth his mother died and he was brought up in his aunt's house. “He was sick in his little age", and was not a child prodigy. On the contrary, he was a very naughty boy who loved eating the dates and pears on the trees without permission. There are poems as evidence: "recalling the year I was a child at fifteen, I was as healthy as a yellow calf going to and fro. In August, when the dates and pears were ripe in the yard, I was climbing up the tree one thousand times a day." (see Du Fu’s “A hundred Worries”) But he studied hard, and "read more than ten thousand books". At age twenty he began to travel, journeying north and south, visiting his relatives and friends, "tramping" and “dawdling" along the way. At the age of thirty-five he did not receive an official appointment and became frustrated, because in spite of all his talents he was in fact just a poor travelling scholar. He tried to send his name out on cards in the hopes that high officials and noble lords would recommend he receive an appointment, but he failed again and again. Even in the imperial examination he could not achieve success. According to the perception of some people today, Du Fu is nothing but worthless.
But traveling expanded his vision and mind, the motherland’s magnificent rivers and mountains edified his lofty ideals and high aspirations. He wrote a famous poem “When I reach the top of the peak, I can hold all mountains in a single glance.” (Du Fu’s “Look up the Yue Mountain”) Later, Du Fu met the great poet Li Bai. Du Fu admired Li Bai so much. They became friends and were together on the road crossing the Yellow River to Wangwu Mountain to visit Mr. Hua Gai. Unfortunately, when they arrived at there, Mr. Hua Gai was dead. They returned with pity. But halfway home, they met a famous poet, Gao Shi. The three of them became good friends and they enjoyed each other’s company around the state of Song. They called eagles that were chasing a rabbit, and while they drank they complained and vented about the political administration with dissatisfaction. Li Bai was older than Du Fu by about ten years, but Li appreciated his talents. Li called Du little brother and presented Du with a poem: "As the erigeron flies afar, we drink to the bottom of the cup". Du Fu praised Li Bai with a poem in return: "His pen can make the wind and rain astonished, and his poems can make ghosts and gods sob with tears". Their friendship was so deep. After while, Li Bai left the city and said good-bye to Du Fu, but soon after, Du Fu heard the bad news that Li Bai had drowned to death. Du Fu was so filled with sorrow that he dreamt of Li Bai for three days. Du Fu wrote three poems in remembrance. "With the same ghost language, Li Bai presents his poetry to the Miluo River." The poem means that Li Bai can be compared to the great poet Qu Yuan. Later it was confirmed that the bad news was a rumor and Li Bai received the emperor’s forgiveness and pardon. Du Fu was excited to write the poem “Sending Li Bai Twenty Rhymes”. The friendship between the two distinguished poets was so great even today it is a much-told story. Unfortunately, today, many scholars scorn each other. Only a few can love each other. Each writer considers himself better than others. How can such a great friendship exist?
Later on, Du Fu went to the capital city of Changan. He stayed there for ten years, but never got a decent position as an officer. Finally he became a junior staff member in an office, but other officials repeatedly squeezed him out. Later, the rebellions of An Lushan and Shi Siming, as well as the barbarian attacks made society unsteady. Du Fu began the life of an exile again, suffering hunger and cold. He witnessed the social stratum people living in dire straits, and wrote numerous great works of critical realism. Such as "the meats smell inside the Red Gate, but outside, along the road, there are many bodies dead from cold." Later someone recommend for him to see the emperor. The Tang Dynasty emperor Su Zong rewarded Du Fu a higher-ranking official position—rank eight officer. Du Fu could now follow and accompany the emperor. If Du Fu had fawned over the rich and powerful, he would have won the favor of the emperor. But he was just Rip Van Winkle and wrote a memorial to the throne to rescue Mr. Fang Guan who had been dismissed from the position of prime minister. What Du Fu did angered the emperor Su Zong, so Du Fu was tortured and punished with exile. But whilst in exile, and thanks to it, he wrote his best poems: “Three Officials”, “Three Parts From”, “Spring View”, “Sorrow at the End of the River”, “Northern Expedition” and many others full of immortal patriotism and concern for the fate of the psalms.
Du Fu’s official career was a complete failure. Most of his life was spent relying on friends’ donations, as he himself was penniless. But he was concerned about the country and people, and went around campaigning for the country’s future and the people’s weal and woe. His masterpieces have impelled scholars from generation to generation to worry about justice, to say the truth, to criticize the errors of society, and encourage us to contribute the nation with our blood and passion, “worrying earlier than all people, and happing later than all people”. His great poems arouse us, causing us to push the development of the country along the road of real criticism. It is this importance that we learnt from the great poet and remember today. If writers, poets, novelists and essayists don’t know how to write official style articles, only how to eulogize the administration’s virtues and achievements, and only how to enjoy personal profit and official rank, how can they promote social justice and social progress? Today, poetry can become no more than “potted landscape art”. Novels and works of prose are benighted, completely short of being enlightened masterpieces. All these reasons aside, one should not censor or cut off the good works. It is only a small part that is not of the people’s tongues, and do not represent the voices from the people’s heart. Because they are short of the broad feelings that bemoan the state of the universe and pity the fate of mankind, because they are totally the personal moanings and groanings of the authors, because they are the rubbish from killing time after eating too much, and because they are “purposely turning simple things into mystical things”, they must be abandoned.
At the cottage I find that in fact Du fu stayed here for only four years. After three years he went to another province to become a petty officer and then he went to another place to take shelter from the war. Five years later he came back here and stayed for one year. But Du Fu loved it here very much. He planted many peach trees and bamboo. He used to write letters to ask his friends for saplings. He wrote to Shu Shi and asked him to send 100 peach saplings before the spring, to Wei Ban for Mianzhu town bamboos, to He Yi for a wedge tree sapling that was a typical tree of the middle Shu area and could grow a big crown within three years. He also asked Wei Ban for a sapling of pine. Now all the trees are huge against the sky. Many birds and swallows have built nests in the trees, so the twittering sounds are loud. It is very interesting how the leaves and branches rattle in the breeze. Du Fu wrote a poem to describe a similar scene: “Fishes jump out of the surface of the pond in the drizzle, while the swallows fly in the sky in the breeze.” (please see Du Fu “Relieve Boredom on the Water Gate, No.1”) “The tender flowers bloom slowly after their discussion, the leisurely little oriole sings in a clattering voice.” This is the portrait of the cottage. All visitors enjoy the beautiful scenery here so much that they forget they have to go home. According to what the guide said, Chengdu residents prefer to visit Du Fu’s Cottage on the eighteenth of April, for on that day the weather is very fine even though it is the rainy season. On the eighteenth of April it never rains!
Let us go back to the story of Du Fu. He left the cottage for many reasons and lived a vagrant life again. From then on he never went back to the cottage he loved so much. He had to depend on his friends and relatives for his living means, and to some extent it was like the way of a beggar. From autumn to winter in AD 770, Du Fu lived on a small wooden boat, suffering hunger and cold. As a result, he caught the serious illness rheumatic cardiopathy. His last poem described what he saw from the boat. “My homeland, looking cold and sad, is covered with a group of thick black clouds. The white haze blocks the water world, while the maple trees on the banks look dark green. The gas of the winter miasma is gloomily thick, and the cold rain and drizzle are constantly pouring down. Some drumbeats are not to hold a memorial ceremony for ghosts, while some storks drop down for the slingshot.” The poem is full of concerns about the country and the people, and full of feelings bemoaning the state of the universe, pitying the fate of mankind.
A great patriotic poet had died as though a star had fallen from sky. But Du Fu still lives on in the hearts of the people of China and the world. His illustrious deeds and poems are an everlasting monument, respected and recited by his succeeding generations. His spirit always encourages us not to seek personal fame and profit, but to go forward with people, forward with the nation, forward with time!