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Li Bai and Du Fu

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The Arrival of Spring

The first sign of springSpring always provides a good occasion for dashing off a poem or two and many Tang poets certainly rose to the occasion. If anything, the Tang world seems to have been much more obsessed with springtime than our own; thick sprays of peach and plum blossoms must have been a common sight, enough so that wind-swept and floating blossoms became the most over-used of literary tropes. At times, the blossoms fell thickly enough to cover even Li Bai in his drunken slumber.

So we're celebrating spring's arrival with three Tang poems. The first one concerns itself with a Chinese custom, which dates back at least to Tang times, of going out in search of the earliest signs of spring, an activity which is apparently still popular in modern China though probably more of a winter pursuit nowadays thanks to the advent of global warming. In any event, this is a poem from the late Tang period by Yang Chu-Yuan (755-820), which expresses the poet’s passion for beating the crowds in detecting spring’s initial advance.

Early Spring East of the City

A poet delights to catch
The first glimpse of spring
When rising sap in the willow sprig
Produces the faintest tint of pure gold

It’s already much too late to savor
Spring's flavor in the Imperial Woods
Once they're festooned with rich brocade
And the couples are everywhere
Strolling and gaping

Click here to hear Steve Zhang recite this poem in Mandarin.

Another spring sceneOur second spring poem is by the early Tang poet Du Shen Yan. This is one of the poems included in the standard anthology of 300 Tang Poems. The sentiment is somewhat typical of Tang spring poetry but the writing is exquisite. Among other things, it's a prime example of one standard form of classic Chinese poetry with a fixed length of 5 characters per line arranged in couplets with 8 lines in total. The poem was written in reply to a friend, which is another common feature of classic poetry, as poems would be exchanged back and forth in correspondence much like email today, but the reply would typically be expected to use the same form as the original, and perhaps even the same rhyme scheme.

Early Spring Vista - A Reply to Minister Lu

A wanderer
Encounters spring
Quite by chance as
A new shoot
Comes into being

Clouds red and white
Drift across
The sea at dawn

Plum blossoms
And willow catkins
Gather on the riverbank
Waiting to ferry across

A warm breeze urges on
The oriole’s song
And a clear light spreads
The clovers’ green message

Hearing the old harmonies
So clearly restored
I’m absorbed by
Old thoughts and desires
And blot a teardrop
With my bandana





And finally, here's a spring poem by the masterful Du Fu, written in the mid-Tang period. Quite different and much more modern in spirit, almost foreshadowing T.S. Eliot's opening line to the The Waste Land, this is Du Fu's take on spring time in the wake of the An Lu Shan rebellion, which had laid waste to the countryside and brought the Tang Dynasty itself to the point of collapse.

Spring Scene

The country lies broken though
Mountains and rivers remain
And as spring returns to the city
The grasses and trees regain
Their usual green depth

But in the mood
Of these days
Dew sprinkles the flowers
Like tears on the cheek
And as I watch the sparrow take flight
My heart knows only sorrow and regret

For three months
The beacon fires have flared
Making a letter from home
More precious than gold

And my white hair has grown
So thin from constant scratching
Now it won’t even hold a pin



Click here to hear Steve Zhang recite this poem in Mandarin.

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In the Tang Spirit,
Lan Hua - March 21, 2012