Monday, April 25, 2016

at Qutang Gorge meditating on ancient times

at Qutang Gorge meditating on ancient times

southwestward ten thousand gullies flow in;
the strong contender split the two cliffs—

the earth gave way, the mountain split to its base;
Long River arrives from the Cave of the Moon—

pared down to accommodate Baidicheng,
the curve of the void conceals the Sun Terrace—

this act of chiselling: impressive, sublime:
but the power of the Potter’s Wheel is vast! 

Jack Hayes
© 2016
based on Du Fu:
Qú Táng Huái Gŭ

Qutang Gorge is the westernmost of the Three Gorges  (Sānxiá or 三峡) on the great river the Chinese call the Cháng Jiāng (“Long River”), 长江, & westerners refer to as the Yangtze.  The ancient town of Baidicheng (White Emperor Castle) is located at the mouth of the Qutang; the town is of particular interest because it’s the resting place of Liu Bei, the founding emperor of the Shu-Han during the Three Kingdoms period, & a site of worship for both Liu Bei himself & also his renowned chancellor, Zhuge Liang. Du Fu was in particular an admirer of Zhuge Liang, & addressed a number of poems to him.

It’s always impressive how much material the great Chinese poets can weave into a short form. Here Du Fu is meditating on the forces that shaped Qutang Gorge, both the labors of Yu (the "strong contender"), the mostly mythical ruler who tamed the floods & established the legendary Xia Dynasty (circa 2200 BCE).  While there’s no actual historical record of Yu or the Xia until the Western Zhou Dynasty, over a thousand years after the traditional dates for this ruler, he plays a large role in China's mytho-historical narrative.  Yu’s labors are here contrasted with the vastly more impressive effects of cosmic forces, as symbolized by “the Potter’s Wheel” (陶鈞).

The Sun Terrace is a temple located some distance from Qutang Gorge. It's also worth noting that the character translated as "void" (空) has among its many meanings the sense of Buddhist Sunyata & Daoist "emptiness".

As always, deep gratitude to my partner Sheila Graham-Smith for her crucial help with this translation.

Image links to its source on Wiki Commons“View of the Qutang Gorge along the Yangtze River from Baidicheng”: by Tan Wei Liang Byorn who makes it available under the following licenses: the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version; & the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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