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According to historical documents, Du Mu wrote the poem around AD 850, not long after he was recalled to Chang’an (current day Xi’an), the Tang Dynasty capital.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.”