Brothers in Verse: Two Legends of Tang Poetry

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Li Po Laughs; Tu Fu Titters



Li Po (701-762) was born in China’s far West, and was influenced by his knowledge of Central Asian languages and cultures. To contemporaries, his talents were supernatural. His verses seemed to originate in something other than the human consciousness, speaking directly to the soul.


The Ballad of Ch’ang Kan

(The Sailor’s Wife)


I with my hair fringed on my forehead

Breaking blossom, was romping outside:


And you rode up on your bamboo steed,

Round garden beds we juggled green plums;

Living alike in Ch’ang Kan village

We were both small, without doubts or guile…


When at fourteen I became your bride

I was bashful and could only hide

My face and frown against a dark wall:

A thousand calls, not once did I turn;


I was fifteen before I could smile,

Long to be one, like dust with ashes:

You’d ever stand by the pillar faithful,

I’d never climb the Watcher’s Mountain!


I am sixteen but you went away

Through Chu Tang Gorge, passing Yen Yu Rock

And when in June it should not be passed,

Where the gibbons cried high above you.


Here by the door our farewell footprints,

They one by one are growing green moss,

The moss so thick I cannot sweep it,

And fallen leaves: Autumn winds came soon!


September now: yellow butterflies

Flying in pairs in the west garden;

And what I feel hurts me in my heart,

Sadness to make a pretty face old…


Late or early coming from San Pa,

Before you come, write me a letter:

To welcome you, don’t talk of distance,

I’ll go as far as the Long Wind Sands!





I remember, in my maiden days

I did not know the world and its ways;

Until I wed a man of Chang Kan:

Now, on the sands, I wait for the winds…


And when in June the south winds are fair,

I think: Pa Ling; it’s soon you’ll be there;

September now, and west winds risen,

I wish you’ll leave the Yangtze Haven;


But, go or come, it’s ever sorrow

For when we meet, you part tomorrow:

You’ll make Xiang Tan in how many days?

I dreamt I crossed the winds and the waves


Only last night, when the wind went mad

And tore down trees on the waterside

And waters raced where the dark wind ran

(Oh, where was then my traveling man?)


That we both rode dappled cloudy steeds

Eastward to bliss in Isles of Orchids:

A drake and duck among the green reeds,

Just as you’ve seen on a painted screen…


Pity me now, when I was fifteen

My face was pink as a peach’s skin:

Why did I wed a traveling man?

Waters my grief…my grief in the wind!




Du Fu (712-770) was born near the capital Chang’an, of a family distinguished by service to the state. Du Fu’s poems chronicle his life and times with social conscience and compassion, but also reflect an uncompromising portrait of the man himself.


From The Journey North: The Homecoming


Slowly, slowly we tramped country tracks,

With cottage smoke rarely on their winds:

Of those we met, many suffered wounds

Still oozing blood, and they moaned aloud!


I turned my head back to Feng-xiang’s camp,

Flags still flying in the fading light;

Climbing onward in the cold hills’ folds,

Found here and there where cavalry once drank;


Till, far below, plains of Pin-chou sank,

Ching’s swift torrent tearing them in two;

And ‘Before us the wild tigers stood’,

Had rent these rocks every time they roared:


Autumn daisies had begun to nod

Among crushed stones wagons once had passed;

To the great sky then my spirit soared,

That secret things still could give me joy!


Mountain berries, tiny, trifling gems

Growing tangled among scattered nuts,

Were some scarlet, sands of cinnabar,

And others black, as if lacquer-splashed:


By rain and dew all of them were washed

And, sweet or sour, equally were fruits;

They brought to mind Peach-tree River’s springs,

And more I sighed for a life misspent!


Then I, downhill, spied Fu-zhou far off

And rifts and rocks quickly disappeared

As I ran down to a river’s edge,

My poor servant coming far behind;


There we heard owls hoot from mulberry leaves,

Saw fieldmice sit upright by their holes;

At deep of night crossed a battlefield,

The chill moonlight shining on white bones:


Guarding the Pass once a million men,

But how many ever left this Pass?

True to orders, half the men in Ch’in

Here had perished and were alien ghosts!


I had fallen, too, in Tartar dust

But can return with my hair like flour,

A year but past, to my simple home

And my own wife, in a hundred rags;
Who sees me, cries like the wind through the trees,

Weeps like the well sobbing underground;

And then my son, pride of all my days,

With his face, too, whiter than the snows,


Sees his father, turns his back to weep –

His sooty feet without socks or shoes;

Next by my couch two small daughters stand

In patched dresses scarcely to their knees


And the seaways do not even meet

Where old bits of broidery are sewn;

Whilst the Serpent and the Purple Bird

On the short skirts both are upside-down!


‘Though your father is not yet himself,

Suffers sickness and must rest some days,

How could his scrip not contain some stuffs

To give you all, keep you from the cold?


‘You’ll find there, too, powder, eyebrow black

Wrapped in the quilts, rather neatly packed.’

My wife’s thin face once again is fair,

Then the mad girls try to dress their hair:


Aping mother in her every act,

Morning make-up quickly smears their hands

Till in no time they have spread the rouge,

Fiercely painted great, enormous brows!


I am alive, with my children, home!

Seem to forget all that hunger, thirst:

These quick questions, as they tug my beard,

Who’d have the heart now to stop an scold?


Turning my mind to the Rebel Camp,

It’s sweet to have all this nonsense, noise…

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One Response to Brothers in Verse: Two Legends of Tang Poetry

  1. April says:

    Li Po (Li Bai) is regarded as the Immortal of Poems and Tu Fu the Sage of Poems by Chinese pople, and many poems of them are still popular among the masses though created about 1300 years ago. Great Poets!

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