Sunday, May 16, 2010

May 16, 2010

I’m writing this on my MacBook, en-route back to Chongqing. We fittingly ended our stay in Chengdu with our best China meal since our arrival. At the center of this was mapo tofu, the kind I have never been able to find anywhere except in Sichuan. The sauce is a blend of red peppers and Sichuan peppercorns, mixed with black bean paste, oils, and garlic, best eaten when served piping hot. The meal also included: sizzling rice with strips of pork, bamboo, mushrooms, green vegetables (in a sweet, non-spicy sauce); eggplant in a sweet sauce with a bit of spicy tang (yuxiang qiezi); chicken with peanuts, garlic, onions, spicy pepper (gong bao ji ding), and a vegetarian version of this with firm tofu; a mild stewed cabbage dish; a mild, but savory, tofu with mushrooms in a white sauce (a hit with the non-spice eaters); fried mantou with sweet condensed milk; watermelon; vegetarian soup in a clear broth with a great deal of greens; white rice; two tall bottles of Snow Mountain beer; one large bottle of Coca Cola: a pot of tea; and plenty of bottles of water. Yum.

My tummy is happy and full from this lunch, and my heart and mind sated with gardens and poetry. This morning we visited Du Fu’s thatched hut. Today Du Fu (712-770 A.D.) has edged out Li Bo (699-762 A.D.) as being my favorite Chinese poet. Both lived during the Tang Dynasty, a period of great cultural flourishing in Chinese history. But Du Fu lived in the later Tang, and he lived much of his life in exile from the capital, separated from his old friends (including Li Bo), and often separated from his family. His poems are rich with themes of separation and loss, but also hopefulness and humanity. He spent five years in Chengdu, during which he is said to have written over 500 poems, often hungry and impoverished in a thatched cottage near a river. His cottage has been reconstructed on the site where it is believed he lived, and the grounds have since been expanded and cultivated into a beautiful commemorative park, filled with twisting pathways, waterfalls, bridges and pagodas, as well as various sculptures and displays celebrating Du Fu and other Tang dynasty poets. The sculptures portray him as greatly emaciated, and he is said to have died of malnutrition on a boat far from home.

One Monday night, before our departure for China, the Widener students and Paula, Pat, Tim, and I had the great privilege of discussing Tang poetry with a Widener professor of literature, Ken Pobo, an accomplished poet in his own right. Ken shared his enthusiasm for Chinese poetry with us, bringing the sentiments and images of this era to life for us. He compelled us each to consider our emotional and intellectual responses to symbols which occur in Tang poetry: wind and rain; moonlight and frost; boats and rivers; food vessels and shelter. We spend an animated two hours with Ken, lost in language and lost to time, discovering how these poets spoke to each of our subjective worlds. We were so prepared for this visit that it was something like a pilgrimage, and many of the students (including myself) purchased translations if Du Fu’s poetry at one of the park gift shops, presenting a challenge to our guide, Kevin, as he tried to steer us, heads bowed to our open books, as we moved back towards the bus.

Here are three of Du Fu’s poems, which have kept me company on this bumpy bus, followed by a poem by Li Bo that we discussed with Ken Pobo during our Widener evening of poetry.

Out on the Boat
To Chengdu, the southern capital,
Has come an old man, turned
Farmer, who still feels bitter
When he sits and stares northwards;
Now finding forgetfulness when
He paddles with his wife in a little boat,
Watching their children bathing
In clear waters; and the butterflies
Courting each other; seeing two
Lotus blossoms on one stalk together;
Taking with them tea
Or else sugar cane juice,
Thinking how for drinking
Ordinary pottery is as good
As the finest jade.

Sheep and cattle have long come down from the hills;
Stock gates in every home
Are closed; a pleasant night
With a breeze and moon; yet
It is born on me that these
Hills and streams are not
Really my home; down in the gullies
Rapids swish over the rocks;
Dew lies on the grass of the plains;
My hair is grey already, why
Does the candle throw off sparks?

Moonlight Night
This night at Fuzhou there will be
Moonlight, and there she will be
Gazing into it, with the children
Already gone to sleep, not even in
Their dreams and innocence thinking
Of their father at Chang’an;
Her black hair must be wet with dew
Of this autumn night, and her white
Jade arms, chilly with the cold; when,
Oh when, shall we be together again
Standing side by side at the window
Looking at the moonlight with dried eyes.

She thinks of him (by Li Bo)
I’m a peach tree
deep in a gorge, flowering
smiling and nodding to no one.

You were the moon
high in the night sky
smiling down on me one hour
and then going on

a razorsharp sword
can’t cut a stream of water
it foams across the blade
goes on

my thoughts don’t stop
they are the stream
they flow
they follow you

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