Du Fu in Kuizhou

Photograph by Kevin Kunstadt

In the summer of 765, after years of wandering following the onset of the An Lu Shan Rebellion in 755 and the tumultuous years that followed, Du Fu and his family arrived in Kuizhou (present-day Baidicheng, which is 8km downstream from Fengjie County on the Yangtze). Here Du Fu experienced perhaps the most peaceful and prolific years of his life. With the help of the governor, who gave him an easy official appointment, Du Fu came to own two properties: a house in Nang-west with a garden and a large orchard, and another house in East Village with a rice farm attached.  He also spent time in the official quarters further west, called West Pavilion in the poems.

The heat is something he can't get used to. It sits heavy on the village, the hills and the river, the inert air dense with moisture that could not be wrung out. His clothes are soaked just from walking a few lis to the house in East Village. To make the Yangtze summer more unbearable, the mosquitoes are savage and the flies indefatigable. At night the family lies awake, straw-fan in hand, tossing and groaning, wishing they were back north in Changan or Luoyang. Even the snow and cold are better than this heat that holds them captive.

He shouldn't complain though. The earth is rich here and there is plenty of water. It is even easier than in Chengdu. Anything will flourish in the Yangtze soil. Terrace on terrace of crops above the fields of paddies, vegetable and fruit trees. Through the year, there is a seamless succession of planting and harvesting, a crop rotation system that ensures no available plot is left unused. On his fields in the East Village the rice is followed by vegetables, vegetables by wheat, and then back to rice. There are even groves of peach and apple trees on the hill ridges. Around his Nang-west house the garden and orchard provide a bountiful larder: cabbage, radish, soybeans, potatoes, peas, and groves of peach and orange trees. For the first time in his life, he is a proud landowner—two cottages and sizeable plots, and fields of rice and wheat that he has rented out.

Governor Po has been as generous as Yen Wu was in Chengdu. Besides the job as secretary, he has given him a few plots of land, and the use of the West Pavilion. Here he has enjoyed solitude: time and space away from the family. Just beyond the gate you can see the river in all its glory, how strong and wide it is, wild, intractable, unpredictable. Every day lives were lost. The fishermen, the boatmen and trackers all have sad stories to tell. Just last week a team of trackers was swept away by a sudden surge of tidal water.

Further up from the West Pavilion is the Look Far Tower, where you can see the tops of the White Salt Mountains, and the Eight Unit Formation, the mammoth slabs on the shoal where the Meixi River pours into the Yangtze, which Zhuge Liang had deployed to stop Cao Cao, and further down, where the river narrows and the cliffs rise sheer out of the water, loom Kui Men and the beginning of the Qutang Gorge. Looking upstream, on the western bank of the Nang tributary are the hamlets and orchards and beyond them the town walls of Kuizhou; a little further on lies his cottage, the thatch roof and the fenced garden just visible on a clear day. The views should inspire lofty thoughts, but in him they only arouse a deep wave of melancholy. Last week he wrote "Climbing High" after brooding for hours at the Look Far Tower, the cliffs swallowed by a legion of grey clouds:

In the towering skies the howls of wind and gibbons mix,And from the river shoals the white birds return.Down the mountain slopes the leaves fall silently,While the Yangtze rushes loudly, unrelentingly on.I have borne my sorrows a thousand miles,Borne these ailments a hundred years, now climbing alone this tower,Hair gone white with worry and pain,Lost, pausing here, having quit the comfort of wine.
But there have been other poems, sunlit moments of peace and joy. Poems recording the diurnal activities: weeding, planting, minding the servants, drinking with friends, enjoying the walks between Nang-west and the East Village. Yes, the poems have been flowing. Indeed, he has never been so productive, and will have added four hundred poems to his name when they leave Kuizhou. Four hundred poems in three years. Not bad for an old sickly poet.

He opens the creaking gate of his East Village cottage and walks to the riverbank. There are a few bobbing lights on the river. He can hear the distant splash of oars, and the muffled voices of the boatmen. Follow the fireflies and you can make out the shapes of the hull and sails, the streaks of starlight on the river, and above, the looming spectral cliffs. Often they kept him awake, these strange insects, and turn his thoughts homeward. One night last autumn, mesmerized by the restless flickers of light, he had seized the brush and written a poem in one sitting, as if transcribing the luminous writing on the river's dark inscrutable face:

Autumn, in the Wu Mountain night the fireflies dart,Through the window screen they land on my shirt.Startled I find the qin and books are cold.Outside they mingle in the eaves with the starsAnd around the well-head gather in a blaze,Before flashing madly past the blossoms.Grey-haired and sad, I watch by the river;Will I be home next year this time, will I stay?
Home. Changan. Crazy to leave this place where they have found comfort and peace. But each day the yearning grows stronger, to see Changan and Luoyang before he dies. To return to the county of his ancestors. Come spring they will be on the boat he has just bought, a single-masted thatch-roofed craft, spacious enough for the family. They will sail down the river to Jiang Ling and then turn north for Changan. Home at last. His sons Chung Wu and Chung Wen have been taking lessons from their fisherman-neighbour, working the sail and the stern-oar, handling the ropes and hawser, learning to read the river. Last week they managed to steer around Hesitation Rock, one of the most treacherous features this part of the River.

He is proud of them. Not literary but practical, obedient and strong. The family's literary lineage will die out with him. Entirely his fault. All these years on the move, there was no way the boys could settle into any learning routine. His own childhood was blessed in comparison; it was the best years of the Ming Huang's reign, before the Emperor lost his senses in the arms of Yang Gui Fei. His father was a respected magistrate in Fengtien and owned properties in a few districts. Though seldom home, he had hired a good team of tutors for his sons and was always reminding them of their illustrious forebears: their great-grandfather Du I-I, who was the magistrate of the Kung District, and their grandfather Du Shen-Yen, who was a Writer of the Bureau of Literary Composition, a job ranked at the eighteenth step in the ranking system. The latter was a poet much revered and quoted even today. Du knew from the moment he could write that he would be a poet-scholar, dedicated to carrying on the family tradition of service to the Court and achievements in the literary world.

How far he is from accomplishing the dreams of childhood and youth. The years of hope and promise, all vanished like a dream. His happy childhood, climbing the elm in the front yard a hundred times a day, writing poems that so impressed his teachers they compared him to the classical poets, the carefree years of traveling through the regions of Zhao and Ji, climbing Taishan, hunting all day, dispatching arrows on the gallop and seldom missing a crane or a stork, meeting Li Bai and the months of craziness, drinking, meeting beauties in the taverns, visiting monks and hermits. It is so many lifetimes ago.

He probes a new cavity, the gum still tender, a faint rusty taste of blood. Half his teeth are gone. Soon he will be like the old woman who shuffles painfully to the orchard to pick the fallen peach and persimmon, sunken lips, mouth sewn in a permanent grimace. The list of ailments grows with each month: asthma, arthritis, his kidneys acting up, the recurrent malaria, and now an increasing deafness in his left ear, a faint hum at first, then louder, drowning out the voices of his wife and children. It started after his fall last summer.

He was riding home, slightly tipsy after tasting a new batch of bai jiu at the governor's house, when remembering how he had galloped while drunk with Li Bai and Gao Shi, he spurred the old horse into a canter and like him it must have been deceived that it was young again and full of spring in its legs; it leapt into a wild spree along the mountain flank. Old man and horse were flying through the dusky air, all decrepitude shaken off.

Then he was flung through the air, and in that arc that seemed to last forever, he thought of his poor body, and felt sorry for it as though it weren't his, and his whole life seemed to pass before him before the impact, before that awful shudder through the old bones.

When he awoke he saw his wife's face, her lips moving. It felt like a dream, her voice lost in a fog. It gradually sank in that he couldn't hear her. The faint hum in his ears became deafening and then receded to a background hum. Last autumn, he noticed that the leaves were already on the ground before he heard them. His world has become muffled, more circumscribed, the sounds of birds, his children, the roar of the River all drowned out.

He had laughed it off, and even wrote a poem about it, half in embarrassment, half in apology to Fen, who has to put up with his folly, with all the years of homelessness and poverty. He must stop drinking. Must stop acting as if he were still twenty-something.

But today is the first day of summer. The sky is a breathtaking blue, and the cliff formations revealed in their glory. The river is at its full brown spate, Hesitation Rock barely visible; only the churning eddies betray its position.  There are days in winter, when the river and the gorges are shrouded in foggy gloom and miasmic vapours cling to the villages. You can't see more than a few yards. The boats have to hug the shore and rely on poles or the trackers. But today is so achingly clear, the hills fretted with wildflowers, and everything bathed in a new light that he has to risk riding again.

After instructing Chung Wen to set up the chicken coops, he takes his walking-stick and saddles his horse. He is going to ride to the West Pavilion and stay the week there, writing up the poems that have been accumulating in his head.

His horse snorts, impatient to go. It is an effort mounting; the old bones creaking terribly and he must look silly to his children; they are laughing. He chides them gently, then laughs at himself, his robes all bunched up.

"Father rode the Ferghana horse once. Don't look down on your old man."

"Don't come back with broken bones. I don't want to have to nurse you again," his wife calls out from the door.

The memory of the fall sends a phantom shaft of pain and caution through his body.

But how he longs to be young, throwing all caution to the wind. Wandering around with Gao Shi and Li Bai, climbing the sacred peaks, seeking out Zen hermits and Taoist priests, composing verses with unbuttoned ease, drinking themselves to ecstasy under the full moon. They felt immortal then, as though they had tasted the elixir of life. The years of trouble were far ahead. He was in full possession of his destiny. With Li, he seemed to have lived each moment to the hilt, inhabited life so fully that even poetry didn't seem to matter. It was as if he had been permitted to step outside of time, those few months, and lived the life of an immortal.

He prods the beast but it merely shifts and neighs. Then he digs his heels in and barks a command. It rears a little and then lurches into a steady canter. The children giggle and wave.

He takes the road up, climbing above East Village. The air is bracing, the early summer giving it a rinsed clarity, a freshness touched with scents of the wild roses, the magnolias and sprays of azalea and chrysanthemum. On the hill-slopes scattered huts exhale cooking fires into the crisp air and on the terraced fields of corn and rice the farmers are already at work.

He passes a woman bent under a load of faggots, half-singing, half-muttering. She does not bother to look up at Du. She is dark and haggard; most of the women around these parts look older than their age. Many are unmarried; the men have been drafted into the local army or have gone to work in towns. In his first year here, Du had visited a village near Wu Mountain and noticed that the women were working the fields and chopping the firewood, while the few men that remained lazed around the house. In the salt wells too, the women toiled, digging and carrying the heavy loads under the punishing sun. Watching an indigenous woman hauling faggots up a hill, a middle-aged virgin (Du learned from his servant Au Tun that virgins wear their hair in twin braided plaits pinned with flowers), Du was so moved by her determination and strength that he wrote a poem about these ugly but courageous souls. He had judged them too harshly. Wasn't Wang Chou Chun from these parts too?

Around the bend come a rowdy troop of labourers, armed with mattocks and hoes, going down to till the fields. They are singing a naughty ditty. Du still has trouble with the thick Sichuan dialect; its sounds almost like a foreign language, but he can pick out the words: "The landlord's daughter ran away/ with Farmer Liu's son/ and Farmer Liu is now comforting/ the landlord's wife in bed."

He should write bawdy songs like that. Then his poetry would at least be on the lips of generations to come.

The path veers close to the cliffs. Down below he can see the Daning River, slithering to empty into the Yangtze. Ranged along it are a few hanging coffins. They are all that is left of the Ba tribe who lived here thousands of years ago, long before the Warring States, perhaps during the time of the Yellow Emperor. Locals say at night the coffins fly from their perch and sail upriver to Fengdu, the Ghost City. Maybe that faint keening sound that he sometimes hears after the third watch is a flying coffin.

Ahead a burial party carrying a corpse approaches. The body is slung in a hammock from a pole. The grieving family trail behind.

He dismounts and greets a stooped and wrinkled old man leaning on his cane, his toothless face sunken and his eyes rheumy.

"He was a soldier, killed last night when the rebels came on a raid. An only son," the man says.

"Didn't the rebels surrender last month?"

"Yes, but there is another group that broke away. Nobody believes peace will ever come. It's hard on us old folks. They take the young men away; our sons who are supposed to look after us and the land."

"Here give this to the mother." Du passes a few coppers to the old man.

He walks his horse on past the sad party.

Sometimes from the East Village he hears the drums and the wailing. It is the same story here, no different from the North. No peace in the entire country.

The path climbs over the Widow Peak and the next valley opens up into an expansive view. Below is a village where the mourning party must have come from, a huddle of thatch roofs nestled in the mountain's shadow, above a few terraced plots of rapeseed, wheat and paulownias. Further the valley breaks into ridges and ravines, cradled by the limestone cliffs of the mountain, silver in the morning sun. Above the furthest ridge is a rock they called the Moon Gazing Peak, an arch framing a round eye. The locals believe that you can prolong your life by a decade if you glimpse the full moon through it.

A few kids run to him, dressed in rags, their pleading hands outstretched. He gives them the buns his wife has packed in the satchel. Except for an old man dozing on his doorstep, there are no grown-ups. The men must have been press-ganged into service and the women are probably working the fields.

He rides through a forest of cedars and cypresses, the scented groves of deodar, enjoying the dappled stillness and the invigorating air, then the path narrows and climbs steeply around a few switchbacks into the full glare of the summer sun. In front stand the vermilion-painted walls of Baidicheng, the eaves ornamented with dragons, phoenixes, and apsaras. He first saw it from the boat, as they approached Kuizhou two years ago, the round peak and its solitary pagoda silhouetted in the evening sun. He has not been inside Baidi Temple, always sticking to the narrow path that takes him to the West Pavilion three lis above the town.

He gets off, wincing at the sharp pains in his back and knee joints, and walks his horse up past the ancient gate. There is just one street and not more than thirty households clustered around the temple, which beckons at the northern end, just below the forested slope to the West Pavilion. He ties the reins to a post outside the temple and climbs over the threshold, past the four stern giant warrior-protectors, around the spirit-wall, and into the temple courtyard. A Daoist monk is plucking dead incense sticks from a huge bronze cauldron and another sweeping the ground with a twig-brush. Du mounts the steps in the hall, his eyes adjusting to the dusky interior. The air smells of stale incense and tallow. A grime-darkened glowering statue of the White Emperor sits on the central altar, flanked by attendant deities. A monk is dozing in a corner, his grey robe hitched above the torn leggings.

Du wonders if Li had stopped here. He looks around the galleries and sees the faded frescoes of the chambers of hell. These are not as ghastly as those in Fengdu, the Ghost City that they had visited on the way to Kuizhou. His boys had looked at them with horrified fascination, while Fen and the girls refused to advance beyond the antechambers. Adulterers quartered, thieves stretched and ripped on a rack, dripping tongues, garroted parts, the demons rampant in imaginative sadism. Here the punishments seem half-hearted, tame, the sinners lashed and a few roasted on spits.

The priest stirs and stretches in a loud yawn before standing up and grunting a greeting.

"You must be the poet from the West Pavilion."

Du nods. He looks at the man with new interest. It was good to hear a voice from his own province, the sweet Henan sounds.

"You aren't from here."

"Been here for ten years now, since the Rebellion. Nothing left in my village, nothing left of it."

"Where is your village?"

"Close to Luoyang."

"Then we are neighbours. My father's home is in Yen Shih."

"Ah, I haven't seen anyone from home since coming here. Sometimes I can't remember what it was like, and sometimes I wake up forgetting how to speak Henanese. We Northerners have become Southerners."

The man's speech was distinct, his diction impressive. A scholar-official or maybe even a prince in his previous incarnation.

"We had a poet visiting a few years back. He was a Dao follower."

"Do you remember his name?"

"Li . . . ."

"Tai Bai."

"That's him."

"He stayed for a few days and drank and talked Dao. On the day he left he wrote a poem and inscribed it on the wall at the back."

Du's heart quickens. He feels an instant connection to this place and can see his dead friend's face in the shadows of the temple. It is hard to believe that he is dead, the irrepressible spirit who had dared fate and got away with it so many times that many thought him immortal. In Qinzhou, Du had dreamed of Li on three successive nights and had woken up each time with an awful choking foreboding. Li had been banished to the south by Emperor Su Zong; he had been found guilty of siding with a rebel prince, though the truth was he had done so under duress. In his dreams, his friend was so pale, his form so ghostly that Du felt a cold shudder. He didn't want to write the poems, but it was the only way to speak to Li. He can still remember getting up in the winter chill and lighting the taper. His hand was trembling, from the cold and fear, as he wrote the first lines:

In death all cries are drowned in silence,While in life's parting the pain is more keenly felt.From the malarial lands of the south,No news of the wandering exile.In my dream you often appear,As if you know I yearn for you;But you are not an ordinary ghost.Hard to know what the long road may bring.Through the dark green pines your soul floats,And returns through the benighted pass.You are surrounded, ensnared now,Where are the wings of desire and freedom?The wan moonlight in the raftersI mistake for your ashen face.The deep waters, the wild waves all around,Beware the lurking dragon that will swallow you whole.
"Come, I'll show you."

They walk around the main shrine to the backyard. On the left gallery wall, Du can make out Li's unmistakable calligraphy: wild, thick, flowing strokes. He stands before it, joy in his heart. The Daoist monk reads the lines out:

Farewell to Baidi wrapped in dawn-lit clouds,The thousand-li trip to Jiang Ling a mere day's ride.On both banks the gibbons are crying unstoppably in glee,The light skiff already past the horde of thousand peaks.
He can feel his friend's relief, the Emperor's pardon in his hands, a second chance, a new lease, and to not have to spend the rest of his life in the hot humid south. To return to Changan, go to the taverns, drink and talk poetry with his friends. Du was in Qinzhou at the time, and was not aware that Li Bai had been reprieved. It must have been around the time of those terrible dreams.

"He is dead, you know." The man's voice breaks his reverie. "Died a few months after leaving here."

"Yes, I know."

"Some said he was drunk and fell into the river trying to clutch the moon. But his servant came back this way and said that it was pneumonia."

It is just like Li, to leave a wake of speculation.

He reads the poem a few more times, admiring its cadence, the delightful balance of lightness and weight in the last line. There is so much of Li's spirit in it, the exuberant march forward to take on whatever comes.

He must have stood there for a while, for when he turns to the Daoist priest, the man is no longer there.

Du walks to the pavilion outside of the temple. He can see Kui Men, the inviting entrance to the Qutang Gorge, the White Salt Mountain and the Red Cuirass soaring like giant warriors guarding it. He looks down and feels a wave of vertigo. Below he can make out the Hesitation Rock, and the white froth whipped up around it. There are spars of a few wrecks still trapped in its teeth. Once Du saw the rope slip from the tracking team, and one of the men dragged into the currents and swept away. The boat was instantly lost, hurled against the giant rock and smashed.

As his gaze fixes on a single-masted boat drifting down though Kui Men, and disappearing around the bend on a journey that Du will follow come spring, a thought arises that makes him catch his breath. He dismisses it but it gathers in clarity as he mounts his horse. Li had talked about travelling down the Yangtze together and showing Du the famous Daoist temples along its banks. When he was reading the poem in the temple, Li's presence was so strong, so palpable that Du forgot that it was the Daoist monk standing next to him. And then the monk had disappeared without a word.  How typical of Li. A perfect Daoist trick.

Du smiles and hugs the mystery close to his chest as he urges the horse up the rising path into the sunlit clearing beyond the temple.