They say the road to Cancong
Is rugged and not easy to travel.
Mountains rise before one’s face;
Clouds grow beside the horse’s head.
Fragrant trees shroud the Qin paths;
Spring streams encircle the Shu city.
Rising or sinking must have been destined:
No need to ask Junping.
From Li Taibai shiji 李太白全集 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1977).
 Red characters rhyme.  Cancong 蠶叢 one of the legendary ancestors of the peoples of Shu (modern Sichuan) and here a symbol of Shu.  Qin zhan 秦棧 are the paths from Qin (modern Shaanxi) to Shu.  Junping 君平 refers to Yan Junping 嚴君平 (86-10 BCE), a native of Shu who was the teacher of the famous writer Yang Xiong 揚雄 (53-18 BCE). He is said to have made a living as a diviner in the market of Chengdu.
As it happens, the two greatest Tang poets, Li Bai 李白 (701-762) and Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770), both have close connections with Sichuan. Although the origin of Li Bai’s ancestors is a matter of dispute, there is little doubt that Li Bai spent a good part of his youth in Sichuan. His “Shudao nan” 蜀道難 (The Difficult Paths to Shu) is a well-known and powerful poem elaborating on the forbidding journey from modern Shaanxi to Sichuan.
The poem translated above is much less elaborate than “Shudao nan,” and it’s written in regulated verse (lüshi 律詩), a form Li Bai rarely employed. Although the so-called “rules” for regulated verse hadn’t been fully established and widely practised in Li Bai’s days, the rhythmic requirements were perhaps already too much for this unbridled genius.
Even on this rare occasion where he wrote in regulated verse, we come across extraordinary imagery and the carefree spirit that are characteristic of Li Bai. The second couplet, for example, could be a bit of a challenge for one’s imagination. But if you’ve been to one of the cliff paths that can still be found in many Chinese mountains, it might be easier to visualise these two lines. I haven’t tried riding a horse along those paths, but on the narrow wooden cliff path I’ve walked on, the steep peaks indeed rose right in front of my face from time to time as I turned a corner, and it is certainly not an exaggeration to say that it felt like walking into the clouds. Such mountain paths meant hard travelling and were hardly something desirable in Li Bai’s days, but in the 21st century, they have become scenic spots and a symbol of adventure and excitement. In Mount Hua, for instance, you would need to pay to walk on such a cliffside path.
In “Shudao nan” we see Li Bai in awe of nature’s wonders, but in this poem for his friend, he didn’t continue to elaborate on the dangers of mountain paths. Many poems have been written about parting with a friend, but rarely in a happy tone. We don’t know who Li Bai was seeing him off and for what reason this friend took on his journey to Shu, but Li Bai clearly saw nothing to worry about despite the hard journey ahead of his friend. Instead, he depicted a rather warm scene, with “fragrant trees” and “spring streams” that seem to be welcoming the traveller. Whereas other poets have made the visit to Yan Junping a metaphor for one’s hope of seeing the end of one's misfortune, Li Bai suggested this was not necessary at all and concluded his poem on a note full of confidence.
As I’m having a holiday in Chengdu, a happy poem about visiting Sichuan is exactly what I needed. Apparently it’s much easier to travel to Sichuan nowadays. As I left from Liuzhou by train, I didn’t have the pleasure of travelling along the old paths to Shu that so many writers have written about. But during the seven-and-a-half hour journey, my train also travelled through one mountain tunnel after another, entering Sichuan from the southeast. If Li Bai was around on the high-speed train, he would have been amazed by the journey to Shu in a completely different way. Moreover, Chengdu is now a time-honoured city that is famous for its prosperity, slow-paced lifestyle, and great food. With so many good things to expect and enjoy, asking Yan Junping about the day of leaving the city is perhaps the last thing a tourist would do.
1-2. "Shushan zhandao tu" 蜀山栈道图 by Guan Tong 关仝 (ca. 907-960)
3. A photo of a cliffside path, taken in Mount Tianmen, Hunan
The texts and images used on the website of Rachelle's Lab are either from the public domain (e.g. Wikipedia), databases with open data licences (e.g. Shuhua diancang ziliao jiansuo xitong 書畫典藏資料檢索系統, National Palace Museum, Taipei), online libraries that permit reasonable use (e.g. ctext.org), or original work created for this website.
Although fair use of the website for private non-profit purposes is permitted, please note that the website of Rachelle's Lab and its content (including but not limited to translations, blog posts, images, videos, etc.) are protected under international copyright law. If you want to republish, distribute, or make derivative work based on the website content, please contact me, the copyright owner, to get written permission first and make sure to link to the corresponding page when you use it.
*Read more about copyright and permission here.