Frost-cov­ered Leaves

Beijing (English) - - CHERISHED POEMS - Trans­lated by Zhou Fu­jing Edited by Scott Ed­ward Bray

Du Mu (AD 803– 853), a great Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618–907) poet, wrote the famous poem “Shanx­ing” (“Moun­tain Travel”). It reads:

Lead­ing up to the cold moun­tain, the stony path is steep Up there where the white clouds dwell are some houses Stop­ping my cart I cann’t help but ad­mire the maple woods at dusk

The frost- cov­ered leaves are a brighter red than the blos­soms of lu­nar Fe­bru­ary.

The poem it­self un­folds across a scroll fea­tur­ing forests and moun­tains cov­ered in the red leaves of a late au­tumn sun­set. Here, rather than re­lat­ing au­tumn to melan­choly sor­row, the scene lends a dif­fer­ent mean­ing to the poem.

Ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments, Du Mu wrote the poem around AD 850, not long af­ter he was re­called to Chang’an (current day Xi’an), the Tang Dy­nasty cap­i­tal. Thanks to the gra­cious­ness of the em­peror, he was ex­on­er­ated of the in­jus­tices he was un­der and was ap­pointed to the Of­fice of Sec­re­tar­iat and given charge of draft­ing im­pe­rial edicts. It was at that time that Du Mu be­gan reach­ing his twi­light years. Dis­ap­pointed from the cor­rupt court, he showed sym­pa­thy to the mis­er­able lives of ev­ery­day peo­ple.

At one point, Du Mu re­built the Fanchuan Villa in south Chang’an which had been brought by his grand­fa­ther Du You. Us­ing the salary saved up while tak­ing of­fice in Huzhou (Zhe­jiang Prov­ince) to re­build his grand­fa­ther’s es­tate, the villa was where Du Mu spent his late years. Sit­u­ated in Zhong­nan Moun­tain, Fanchuan was known as the “back gar­den of Chang’an”, its tran­quil and leisurely at­mos­phere made it an ideal spot for in­tel­lec­tu­als.

One day in late au­tumn, Du Mu came to the moun­tain, as­cend­ing its stony path. At dusk, the sun­set cast it­self against float­ing clouds, shin­ing warm light on red leaves as a bell re­sounded from Yunmi Palace in the dis­tance. Tak­ing in the scene, Du Mu be­came lost in thought. Be­ing from a noble fam­ily, his grand­fa­ther Du You a min­is­ter to three of the Tang Dy­nasty em­per­ors and the com­piler of the Tong­dian (an en­cy­clo­pe­dia of the Tang dy­nasty), Du Mu cared deeply about Tang’s pros­per­ity and de­cline and dis­cussed pol­i­tics. Hav­ing an up­right and hon­est per­son­al­ity that dis­dained flat­ter­ing oth­ers, Du Mu never achieved a high rank in court de­spite holding many of­fi­cial po­si­tions in var­i­ous ar­eas through­out the years. Per­haps ow­ing to this, he found him­self ex­cluded, and ex­iled to the des­o­late ar­eas of Huangzhou, Chizhou, and Muzhou to be a pre­fec­ture gover­nor. Du Mu ex­pe­ri­enced many part­ings and lamented his life.

That evening, what ex­tended be­fore him were red leaves, cov­er­ing the moun­tain with colour. Bear­ing par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance in tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture, they brought new life to Du Mu and his dis­ap­point­ing of­fi­cial ca­reer. Set against a bleak in late au­tumn, the bright­ness of the leaves pre­sented Du Mu with the last glo­ri­ous mo­ments of life, fill­ing him with hope. “How­ever low my sta­tus, I will never lay aside my con­cern for the coun­try; penniless, I will still worry for the peo­ple.” Struck with this in­spi­ra­tion, Du Mu set on the jour­ney to Chang’an to con­tinue his of­fi­cial ca­reer.

This great poet has passed away for more than 1,000 years. But, the sea­sons yet change. As our days be­gin to chill, the leaves in Bei­jing’s Fra­grant Hills have turned red, coat­ing the moun­tains in their colour. Maple trees here are com­mon, but their leaves ded­i­cate a color to na­ture af­ter ab­sorb­ing sun­shine, rain, and dew. A sign of au­tumn. A prod­uct of sev­eral hun­dreds of years , the trees planted dur­ing Em­peror Qian­long’s reign (1735–1795) have de­vel­oped into these forests, count­ing some 94,000 trees. Ev­ery year, tourists hail­ing from all over come to the Fra­grant Hills to take in the view of these red leaves which are rem­i­nis­cent of the poem “Moun­tain Travel.”

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