曲江 The Qu River
作者：杜甫 （Author: Du Fu, 8th century)
朝回日日典春衣， court return day day pawn spring clothes
每日江头尽醉归。 Everyday river head exhaust drunk return
酒债寻常行处有， wine debt common go place have
人生七十古来稀。 people life seventy ancient come rare
穿花蛱蝶深深见， to cross flower butterfly deep deep see
点水蜻蜓款款飞。 skim water dragonfly slowly slowly fly
传语风光共流转， pass along words wind light together flow turn
暂时相赏莫相违. temporary each other appreciate no each other parting
Every day I return from court and pawn my spring robes,
And every day, I get so drunk by the river head before going home
Wherever I go, I owe money for wine.
Since ancient times, few people have lived to the age of seventy.
Deep in the flowers, a wandering butterfly appears.
Skimming the water, a dragonfly slowly glides.
Tell these beautiful scenes that we could all be one, roaming together
For a while, enjoying each other’s company without parting.
Our translation of this poem begins rather brutally with the poet pawning his robes and getting drunk by the river every day. It is possible to translate words five and six of the second line differently. Out of context, they could mean “tipsy,” or “drinking my limit,” and others have translated them this way. We believe that “drinking” and “end” mean getting pretty thoroughly drunk here, and that there is a dark note of despair in what otherwise could be a rather typical Chinese poem about having some wine and communing with nature. Other drinking and nature poems do have an element of sadness, of having turned away from a more active style of living. They have also incorporated the idea of not having any money, but they’ve generally done so by painting an almost enviable picture of rustic simplicity, e.g. a humble thatched hut, a small garden, a drink shared with a neighbor. They are often suffused with a Taoist or Buddhist ideal of stillness and contemplation.
Du Fu was a Confucian and was very much concerned with right behavior. In Qu River, we see an urban man pawning his robes and seeing his creditors everywhere. He seems very alone though he works at the seat of power. Du Fu also notes that few people have ever lived to the age of seventy, in other words he doesn’t expect that he will live a long life. He spends the first half of the poem saying nothing about nature other than referencing the river and telling us that he is in debt, that he drinks daily, that he doesn’t expect to live to the 70s, and that he still works for the court. This is not a contemplative or idyllic opening.
The second half of the poem is a more typical work about drinking and longing to be one with the beauty of the natural world, but we note that Du Fu emphasizes the transitory quality of these moments and of the world around him. There is no mention of mountains, the moon, a tall pine, or other more enduring natural sights, only delicate butterflies and dragonflies. Du Fu hopes to join with them “for a while,” implying that he doesn’t expect to enjoy such beauty for long. At the time of writing Qu River, Du Fu was serving as a low-ranking advisor to Emperor Suzong and probably knew that he would soon be banished from the court.
The cause of the banishment was Du Fu’s loyalty to his friend and patron, Fang Guan. Fang Guan had been a chancellor to Suzong’s father, who was known as the Bright Emperor. During the An Lushan rebellion, the Bright Emperor escaped from Chang’An, and Suzong, who was the crown prince, declared himself the new emperor not long after. The Bright Emperor sent Fang Guan to recognize Suzong as the new emperor and to give his son the imperial seal. The new emperor was initially pleased with Fang’s arrival and offered him a senior position at court. However, it was later revealed that Fang Guan, while he was the chancellor to the Bright Emperor, advised the Bright Emperor to have Suzong share military commands with several of his brothers, each acting independently from each other and in different geographical territories. Suspicious of Fang’s loyalty to him, the new emperor stripped Fang Guan of much of his power. Du Fu then revealed himself to be either a very good Confucian or a very poor politician (or both) when he protested Fang’s demotion. After Du Fu’s protest, the new emperor grew concerned that Du Fu was inappropriately loyal to Fang, and he ordered the judicial system to interrogate him. This was a fairly unusual step to take given that Du’s ranking was very low as a government official. The result of the interrogation was that Du Fu was cleared of all criminal suspicions and pardoned by the emperor, but he was “banished” in the sense of being reassigned to a more provincial post.