Like Water or Clouds

Tu Fu (712-770 AD)

Winter Landscape, Li Shan (12th century)

‘Winter Landscape’ - Li Shan (12th century)

Authored and translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved.

This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.


Night Journey Thoughts

Bent grasses in slender breeze.

Boat’s mast high in empty night.

Starlight shining near the plain.

Moon floating on river’s light.

All this writing, but no name.

Illness and years, without a place.

Drifting, wandering, what am I?

A white bird over earth and sky.

Spring in Ch’ang-an

Fallen States still have hills and streams.

Cities, in Spring, have leaves and grass.

Though tears well at half-open flowers.

Though parted birds rise with secret fears.

War beacons shine through triple moons.

Home news is worth more than gold.

Grey hairs, tugged at every disaster,

Thin on this head that’s too small for its cap.

Moon at Night in Ch’ang-an

North of here in the moonlight

She too looks up in loneliness.

I am sad for our little children,

Too young to think of far off Ch’ang-an.

Clouds of hair wet with jewelled mist.

Cold light on arms of jade.

When will we two stir the silk curtains

While one moon shows the stain of tears?

Note: Tu is in the occupied capital. The past glory is already distant in time. His wife and children are in Fu-chou in the north-east. Those who are parted are linked to each other through watching the same moon.

By the Waters of Wei

Grieving silently and ageing,

Going secretly by Spring waters,

By closed palaces along the river.       

New reeds, fresh willows, green for no one.

Rainbow Banners passed hibiscus flowers,

Once, between South Gardens shining faces,

First Lady of the Han, Flying Swallow,

Sitting by her Lord in his carriage.

Maids of Honour with their bows and arrows

Mounted on white horses with gold bridles,

Glanced and shot their careless shafts together,

Killing with a single gleam of laughter.

Bright eyes. Clear smile. Where is She now?

Spirits of the blood-defiled are homeless.

Beyond the Wei’s east-running waters

One entered silence, One was left behind.

Pity’s tears remember vanished hours

By waters and by flowers still the same.

Now curfew, and the dust of Tartar horsemen.

I’ll head north to reach the south again.

Note: The ill-fated Yang Kuei-fei, whom Hsüan Tsung grieved for so deeply is, by analogy, Flying Swallow consort of the Han Emperor Ch’êng. Tu is probably slipping away to join Su-tsung the Emperor in the North hoping that way to return one day to Ch’ang-an’s light-filled South Gardens.

Ballad of the War Wagons

Noise of wagons. Cry of Horses.

Every man carries weapons.

Wives and children run beside them,

Mothers, fathers, gazing after,

Till the bridgehead’s drowned in dust.

Tug at cloth sleeves, clutch and weep.

Wailing lifts to dark clouds.

When the watcher questions why,

Answer comes, ‘We are the levy’.

At fifteen guard the Yellow River,

At forty work to feed the army.

Young the headman tied your headscarf.

Old you’re destined for the borders,

Where the blood is spilt like rainfall,

Where the Han still ask for more.

To the east two hundred places

Where a thousand farms lie fallow.

Though strong women pull the plough now

East and west are vanished furrows,

We who fight the toughest battles

Driven on like dogs or cattle.

We have learned that sons are bad news,

Better only to have daughters,

Who can marry, where their home is,

When a son is dead and rotten.

By Kokonor along the shoreline,

Whitened bones that no one buries,

New ghosts wail with those before them,

Dark clouds gather to their howling.

The Homecoming (from The Journey North)

Slowly we went on country roads,

Smoke blew rarely on the breeze,

Meeting some who’d suffered wounds,

Weeping blood, they cried out loud.

When I looked back to Feng-hsiang

Saw the banners in pale light,

Climbing upwards in cold hills,

Found where men and horses drank.

Till below us Pin-chou Plains,

Parted by the Ching’s fierce torrent,

Where the Wild Tigers stood,

And split the rocks when they roared.

Wild flowers in dull autumn,

Beside stones smashed by wagons,

Made my heart reach the clouds.

Simple things give us joy.

Mountain berries, glittering jewels

Hidden in the densest tangle,

Scarlet like the cinnabar sands,

Black as if splashed with lacquer,

Washed by the rain and dew,

Sour and sweet the fruits of nature,

Bring to mind Peach Blossom Story,

Not this life that’s gone and wasted.

Downhill at last far-off Fu-chou,

Scrambling through the rocky clefts,

Down towards the river’s edge,

Leave the others far behind.

Fieldmice, little guardians, upright,

Listen for the owls in mulberry,

Like Men of Ch’in before the battle.

Moonlight shines here on white bones.

Once a million men positioned

Here to hold the Pass. How many

Ever returned? There perished

Half of Ch’in, now wandering spirits.

I too drowned in alien dust. Back again now.

A year on with whitened hair,

To a poor and simple house,

My dear wife dressed in rags,

Who seeing me cries like rain,

Or fountains bubbling underground.

Here’s my son, pride of my days,

With face paler than Spring snow,

Who seeing me turns and weeps,

His dusty feet lacking shoes.

My little daughters by the couch

Patched dresses barely to their knees,

Sea-wave hems that fail to meet,

Sewn with old embroidery -

Nine-faced Tiger, Phoenix wings,

Tacked on haphazardly.

I say ‘ I’m still not myself.

I’m sick. Must sleep for a while.

But there’s something in my bag

To keep you from the winter’s cold.

Thick quilts tightly packed -

Inside them there’s some paint and powder.’

My wife’s thin face is beautified,

The girls, chattering, dress her hair,

Copying their happy mother,

Colouring their clever fingers

Till the scarlet rouge makes eyebrows

For two pretty little demons.

Alive! With my children! Home!

Forgetting hunger, worry, pain.

All these questions fired at me,

Who could have the heart to stop them?

Thinking what I’ve left behind me,

How the noise of love is sweet!

Note: Written in 757AD when Tu left the Imperial camp at Feng-hsiang having occupied a position as a junior official. It was not a great success probably not through any lack of ability on his part, but more likely due to his uncompromising displays of principle and moral courage. He got home to his family whom he had not seen since the capital had been occupied the previous year.

A Visitor

Southwards, northwards, the Spring waters.

Only flocks of gulls fly in each day.

The flowered path’s not yet swept for guests.

The willow gate has opened first for you.

It’s simple food we’re so far from the City.

In this poor house there’s only stale rice-wine.

If you’re willing, I can call across the hedge.

Drink it with an Old Neighbour of mine.

For General Hua

All day long in Ch’êng-tu,

Lute-strings, reed-pipes make music.

Half of it lost - in the clouds,

Half of it lost - in the water.

But a song like this one

Is meant for the highest skies.

How often can

An ordinary mortal hear it?

Note: Ch’êng-tu (Brocade City) was the ancient capital of Shu in the South West. The poem was a hint to the young general Hua that he should not let his military success tempt him to aspire to or rebel against  the Celestial Throne.

For Wei Pa

All our days rarely meeting

Like those stars in their constellations,

This evening, what an evening,

We’ve shared the flickering candle.

Youth and power swiftly pass,

Hair on our heads is quickly white,

Half of those we knew have vanished,

Pain of that knowledge hurts us.

Who’d guess at twenty years,

Before your house saw my return?

Last time you’d not even married.

Now suddenly sons and daughters

Come to cheerfully greet their father’s friend.

Start to ask where I come from.

But the conversation’s halted

You send them off to fetch the wine-jar,

And pull spring onions in the rain,

Cook them now with yellow millet.

Saying ‘Well, we so rarely meet’

Fill my wine-cup ten times over,

Ten but still I’m not quite tipsy,

Filled with feelings of deep friendship.

Tomorrow the high mountains part us,

Lost again in the world.

Tu Fu to T’ao Chien - Across the Centuries

Gone in a flash the bright flowers.

Old. How I wish they would stay!

Why can’t these present things

Be back in our younger days?

Drinking - sets free the mind.

Writing   - unfolds the heart.

We would meet, T’ao, in this thought,

Though we cannot meet in Time.

To Li Po

When Death divides us grief is smothered.

Parted by Life it’s endless sighs.

South of the River this land’s poison.

From you in exile no word comes.

Note: In happier times Tu wrote ‘Li, The Most Brilliant, has left the Court so that he is free to chase the Mysteries. Like me he wanders from Liang to Sung. We go to gather magic herbs.’

High And Dry On The Yangtze

Cutting winds. Clouds high.

Gorge on gorge. Gibbons cry.

Over river-island’s sand

white birds swoop and land.

Everywhere leaf fall,

Dry leaves rustling.

Everywhere dark waves,

Endless rippling.

Mile on mile of autumn light

is like this journey.

Climb alone and ill

To the bright balcony.

Life’s regrets and failures,

Frost on my forehead.

No longer have a body

To take me where the wine led.


After night rain, autumn sky.

On bright waves the glow of stars.

Heaven’s Ocean white forever.

Yangtze’s waves a moment lucent.

Broken necklace. Mirror pearls.

In the sky the Perfect Glass.

Twilight pale on dripping clock,

Dim as dew weighs down the flowers.

Deep Winter

Only as skies unfold, the ‘Flower in the Leaves’.

Between river and stream the ‘Roots of Clouds’.

Cast as shadows, dawn’s red boulders:

Cold scars show the past floods.

Yang Chu, simple to share your tears.

Ch’ü Yüan, hard to recall your spirit.

Waves blow in the evening winds.

Where will I rest, and in whose house?

Note: Tu Fu is near the Hisang River south of Lake T’ung-ting and the Yangtze. The sun in the clouds is the ‘Flower in the Leaves’, the Yang energy that will eventually bring the Spring. The sun, the season, the ‘river’ of the Empire, and the ‘stream’ of the self, Tu Fu, are all subject to the rhythms of time and the Tao. The sun is a red boulder in the sky and the ‘Roots of Clouds’, the red boulders of the Hsiang River, are the shadows of the red morning clouds in the water that were breathed out by the rocks. The red rocks of the present are the clouds of a morning that has passed. The marks on their sides are the visible records of vanished floods. Tu Fu is driven by reality but haunted by the past, its youthful dawn, and its subsequent tears. Yang Chu wept at the crossroads because any road he chose would lead to new crossroads, and could never lead back. Ch’ü Yüan was China’s first great (shamanist and Taoist) poet and incorruptible minister of the kingdom of Ch’u, near Lake T’ung-t’ing, who chose to drown in the Mi-lo River, in protest and despair, after being slandered, rejected and banished. His noble suicide is commemorated in the Dragon Boat Festival. Tu Fu identifies with both men.

Meeting Li Kuei-nien South of the River

Frequently meeting in Palace of Ch’i.

Hearing you sing in Mansion of Chiu.

So lovely here, South of the River,

Meeting again where petals fall.

Note: Perhaps Tu’s last poem, written in the autumn of 770. A famous musician, Li Kuei-nien had performed at Prince Chi’s palace and Ts’ui Chiu’s mansion, places of the ruined Empire.

Authored and translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved.

This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.

Last Modified 8 February 2004