Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Crooked River

Crooked River

each blossom petal that falls diminishes Spring;
with ten thousand swirled in the wind, a man must worry—

yet I watch with longing till the last petal passes from sight,
as I won’t begrudge myself ale, however it sickens me—

in the small river pavilion, green kingfishers nest;
by the park’s great mausoleum, qilin crouch—

each atom of natural law impels us toward joy:
what good is fleeting fame but to hinder these bodies?


daily returning from morning court I pawn spring clothes;
each evening I come back from the riverside drunk—

everywhere I go, I owe money for ale;
but it’s rare for a man to approach his 70 years—

penetrating blossoms’ depths, butterflies appear;
dragonflies at leisure skim over the water—

the wind & light proclaim flow & shift as one:
why should we not enjoy time’s brief passage?

Jack Hayes
© 2016
based on Du Fu:
qū jiāng



The 曲江 or qū jiāng is variously translated as “Meandering River”, “Winding River”, “Twisting River”, Serpentine River”, & “Curved River”. I chose the word “Crooked” not to be contrarian, but because another sense of 曲 is “wrong.”

There’s a fine discussion of the Serpentine River Park in Charles Benn’s China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty. I’ve excerpted portions that are relevant:

Several parks existed in the districts outside the Forbidden Park and the palaces. The greatest of them was Serpentine River in the southeast corner of the city. In the early eighth century the throne had the river flowing through the area dredged to form a lake so deep that one could not see the bottom. It was joined to a much older park called the Lotus Garden. In 756 it became the most popular spot for feasts the emperors bestowed upon officials [note: the poem is dated to 758]…. The Serpentine River and Lotus Garden had willows, poplars, lotus, chrysanthemums, marsh grasses and reeds…. Patricians could visit the Serpentine River at any time of the year, but they were especially fond of going there during the spring.

Benn, Charles. China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, pg. 68

qilin: The qilin is often translated as “Chinese Unicorn”, though they are very different from the unicorns of European myth & legend. In fact, qilin are often depicted as having antlers rather than a single horn. Depictions of the creature varied at different points in history, but it's often a chimera-like being, combining aspects of different animals. They were considered good omens of prosperity & serenity. Interestingly, a giraffe that was brought to the Ming Dynasty court was thought to be a qilin! One other note: in the standard pinyin Romanization, the “q” is pronounced like the “ch” in “church”.   

"hinder these bodies": (絆此身 bàn cǐ shēn) The
shēn character can refer not only to the body of a human or animal, but also to one's moral character; it is also used to refer to a world in Buddhism. Sheila linked this to the doctrine of Trikaya, which refers to the three bodies of the Buddha. In later Chan Buddhism (i.e., by the Song Dynasty) a direct link was made between the Buddha bodies & the body (or bodies) of the practitioner:
The Zhenzhou Linji Huizhao Chansi Yulu advises:

    Do you wish to be not different from the Buddhas and patriarchs? Then just do not look for anything outside. The pure light of your own heart [i.e., 心, mind] at this instant is the Dharmakaya Buddha in your own house. The non-differentiating light of your heart at this instant is the Sambhogakaya Buddha in your own house. The non-discriminating light of your own heart at this instant is the Nirmanakaya Buddha in your own house. This trinity of the Buddha's body is none other than he here before your eyes, listening to my expounding the Dharma.

At this point I'm unable to confirm that this specific mode of thinking would have been current in Du Fu's own day, though Chan Buddhism was certainly developing during the Tang Dynasty, & Du Fu had close relationships with various Buddhist monks as evidenced by a number of his poems.

Image links to its source on Wiki Commons:Qing dynasty qilin: Bronze sculpture located at the New Imperial Summer Palace. Picture taken late September 2002 by Leonard G. who makes it available under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 1.0 License

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