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杜甫《堂成》 “The Completion of [my] Cottage” by Du Fu

背郭堂成蔭白

緣江路熟俯青

榿林礙日吟風葉,

籠竹和烟滴露

暫止飛烏將數子,

頻來語燕這新

旁人錯比揚雄宅,

懶惰無心作《解》。[1]

Against the outer city wall, [my] cottage was completed in the shade of white cogongrass;

Along the river, the road is familiar, overlooking the green outskirts.

The alder grove blocks the sun, leaves humming in the wind;

Enormous bamboo[2] blends with the mist, [with] dew dripping from twigs.

Stopping awhile, the flying crow brings several young;

Frequenting here, chattering swallows settle [their] new nests.

Others are mistaken about comparing [my cottage] to Yang Xiong’s house,

[As I’m] too lazy, with no intention to compose a “Justification Against Ridicule.”[3]

*From Du shi xiangzhu 杜詩詳注 (Beijing : Zhonghua shuju, 1979), annotated by Qiu Zhaoao 仇兆鰲 (1638-1717), 734-735.

[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] In Sichuan, longzhu 籠竹 refers to big bamboo; see the annotations in Qiu Zhaoao, Dushi xiangzhu, 735. [3] The eminent Han writer Yang Xiong 揚雄 (53 BCE -18 CE) was a native of Chengdu. As a response to ridicules, he wrote “Jiechao” 解嘲 (Justification Against Ridicule).

 

For my first trip to Chengdu, Du Fu’s 杜甫 (712-770) Thatched Cottage is a must-go place. Like many other poets, Du Fu didn’t have a successful political career. Due to the outbreak of the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) in the north, Du Fu decided to leave his position and move south in 759. When he and his family arrived in Chengdu at the end of the year, they first lived in a local temple. In the spring of 760, Du Fu was funded by a few friends in Chengdu and managed to build a cottage for his family. The poem above expresses his joy at the completion of his new home and his appreciation of the pleasant environment. Although the poet mocked himself by saying that he was too lazy to write a lengthy piece of work as Yang Xiong had done, the alleged mistaken analogy between his cottage and Yang Xiong’s house invites conjectures about whether he shared Yang Xiong’s discontent with corruption and injustice in society.

Du Fu wrote well over two hundred poems in Chengdu, which helps reconstruct his life here. His poems mention that his cottage was located near the western end of the Huanhuaxi 浣花溪 (Washing Flower Brook) outside the city, “overlooking the green outskirts.” Today the scenic area is a big park centred around the thatched cottage that is quite different from what one would imagine from Du Fu’s “Maowu wei qiufeng suo po ge” 茅屋為秋風所破歌 (Song for [my] Thatched Cottage Broken by Autumn Wind). Also, the brook that runs through the area has become much smaller than in Du Fu’s days. Nevertheless, it’s a nice park that is well covered by all kinds of plants, and I believe it’s a good place for recreational and educational purposes, not just for tourists but also for local people. As shown in the BBC’s recent documentary about Du Fu, visiting this park is still a great way to connect with the great poet.

As early as the late Tang, the poet Wei Zhuang 韋莊 (836-910) visited Du Fu’s residence in Chengdu and found what he believed to be the foundations of Du Fu’s cottage. He built a house there, which was deserted by the time of the Northern Song. After that, a succession of buildings were (re)built there on the order of local officials and deserted due to lack of management before the more substantial expansion projects during the late imperial periods.[4] Thanks to these historical construction projects, we can be quite confident about the site of Du Fu’s cottage.

The current building complex within the park includes the cottage as well as a few other memorial buildings such as the imaginary office hall. The cottage itself was built in 1996. Based on traditional Sichuan residential cottages, it consists of a living room, a study, two bedrooms, and a kitchen. As expected, there is no mention of Du Fu’s bathroom in or outside the cottage. As in many other Chinese tourist attractions, the “reconstruction” of historical sites is very much idealised, romanticised, and to some extent, standardised. I agree that it is quite impossible to reconstruct Du Fu’s cottage accurately, as suggested by the small book about the history of the cottage I got in the bookshop, but perhaps one could avoid putting luxury furniture that was not popular until the late imperial periods in the study of a poor poet who largely counted on his neighbours and friends to survive.

To me the most interesting part of the park is the Tang ruins of a residential area totalling 420 square metres that were unearthed in 2001. The discovery of the ruins stimulates the imagination about Du Fu’s neighbours, such as the old man he drank with, as he wrote in his poems. Also, a stele found in the ruins serves as evidence for a Buddhist temple standing in this area, even before Du Fu moved in. We can identify the foundations of houses, the drainage system, the location of family wells, and several types of everyday homeware such as bowls, woks, water tanks, etc. It is a bit of a shame that not much explanatory or interpretative information has been provided on the site or in the small book I got. However, even just looking at the ruins one gets an immediate impression of things like the sizes of cottages, the distance between cottages, etc., which reveals valuable information about the life of common people outside the city.

In the end, it took us about two hours to finish our visit. Du Fu’s legend will certainly continue to be celebrated here, although the poet might be surprised to know his shabby cottage is the centre of such a big park and attracting visitors from all around the world nowadays...

[4] See Zhou Weiyang 周維揚 and Ding Hao 丁浩, Du Fu Caotang shihua 杜甫草堂史話 (Chengdu: Sichuan wenyi chubanshe, 2015), 15-40.


Photos taken at the park on Sep 11, 2020.

 

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