In his old age, Du Fu led a wandering life in the Southwest. He missed Chang’an, and so wrote two lines to the effect that “I don’t want my life ended in Sichuan and if I am still alive, I will go back to Chang’an to serve the imperial court.” When he was young, he lived in Chang’an for a long time. His ancestor Du Yu was also a native of Chang’an and therefore, Chang’an was both the then capital of the country and the hometown of Du Fu. Nostalgia is something in the genes of the Chinese. And Du Fu is no exception. He wanted to spend his final years of life in his hometown. That’s why he started the journey from Sichuan to his hometown, but unfortunately he died of illness on the way. At that time, Chang’an fell into enemy hands as a result of the An Lushan and Shi Siming Rebellion against the Tang Dynasty. The Central government gradually lost its credibility, leading to separatist regimes by Tang Dynasty military governors. That was why the land route from Sichuan to Chang’an was not tranquil at all and the water route was the only choice. This poem wrote about Du Fu’s feelings when he climbed Yueyang Tower in Hunan during his boat trip.
A person with affection for his country and nation feels especially close to the history, mountains and rivers of his country. “Long ago I heard of Lake Dongting, now I climb Yueyang Tower.” These two seemingly ordinary lines reflect Du Fu’s rich sentiments and strong yearning as well as his delight in being where he longed to be after affectionate thinking about “long ago” and “now”. “Dongting Lake” is famous in Chinese literature. For example, in “Nine Songs” of the “Verses of Chu”, two lines go like “Sighing softly the autumn breeze; leaves fall on the ripples of Dongting Lake”. In Meng Haoran’s “Overlooking Dongting Lake-for Prime Minister Zhang”, two lines go like “Vapors rise from Cloud Dream Marsh, the waves rock Yueyang walls”. Yueyang tower is just on the bank of Dongting Lake.
“Wu and Chu slope off to south and east”. During the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476BC) in Chinese history, there were Wu State and Chu State, which were in the area of today’s Jiangsu, Hunan and Hubei. Looking down from the height of Yueyang Tower, one can see a large mass of lake water, free from obstacles to the view. This line of Du Fu means that looking southeast to the unblocked lake water, one can fine the boundary dividing Wu and Chu. The Wu-Chu boundary represents his affection for the territoy of the motherland. He was impressed by the view of the vast territory. But happiness and sadness coexisted for different parts of the country. At this moment, which parts were tranquil and which parts were in trurbulence? Du Fu gave expression to all the feelings with just a short line, which is exactly the ingenuity of ancient Chinese poetry.
“Heaven and Earth day and night float on these waters”. “Heaven” and “earth” come from the Chinese character “qian” and “kun”. In the Book of Changes, the “qian” and “kun” represent “heaven” and “earth” respectively. Standing in Yueyang Tower, one can see the light and cloud in the sky above and the rise and fall of endless waves below, which, together, form a picture of the sky moving in the lake water. These two lines describe the vastness of Dongting Lake. As Chinese poems emphasize force and momentum, these two lines are good examples of expressing the imposing and majestic scene of heaven and earth.
There are realism and symbolism in literary creation. Some realistic works do not have any symbolic features and some symbolic works are totally without realism. Du Fu is good at realism. But his realistic works often carries symbolic meanings. The vastness denoted by the line “Heaven and Earth day and night float on these waters” lead the readers to visualize the moving heaven and earth and further envision his own wandering state and the turbulence of the whole country. Then the whole poem shifts from the delight at the beginning to a different sentiment.
“Of kinfolk, friends, not one word, old, sickly, in my solitary boat”. This line represents a subtle transition of emotions of the poet. At first sight, these two sad lines are totally different from the joyful lines of “Long ago I heard of Lake Dongting, now I climb Yueyang Tower”. But with the line “Heaven and Earth day and night float on these waters” in between, a smooth transition is achieved from the grandness and vastness of nature to the turmoil of the world. With that, he continues to write about his own personal experiences. He meant that with years of turbulence, the roads were impeded and there was no word of many of his relatives. Du Fu lived in hunger and cold throughout his life. As a result he got old fast and fell sick. When he was young, he compared himself, in a poem, with Ji, a legendary Chinese culture hero credited with introducing millet to humanity during the time of the Xia dynasty and Qi, a legendary minister of Emperor Shun. But what he got in old age was “old, sickly, in my solitary boat”. That’s why he indicated that he was so ambitious when he was young but finally he achieved nothing and lived in poverty. He wandered so long and now he was old and wanted to go back to his homeland. All his hope was in this boat, which was expected to carry him to the place he longed for.
But what did Du Fu, old and sick and living a wandering and poor life, care about? “North of the barrier mountains the fighting goes on—as I lean on the railing, tears stream down”. Wars never stopped in the Tang Dynasty since the An Lushan and Shi Siming Rebellion. The words “rong ma” in the line refer to wars. As he implied, how many wars and rebellions and invasions were still bothering our country? As I lean on the railing during my drift in Yueyang and look at the majestic landscape of the motherland, the thought of so much unstopped turmoil in the north made me cry. “Tears stream down” is effective description of the sad crying. Despite the numerous frustration and hard experiences, Du Fu never stopped caring about the nation, not even at the end of his life. That is the true nature of Du Fu.
This poem by Du Fu reflects how much he cares about the country and the people. Such care comes from his nature. He has a bigger mind and greater affection than ordinary people. His moral and ethnic feelings and personal sentiments are perfected combined. His affection for the country and the people as depicted in his poem is so sincere, profound and generous. That is an important reason for the masterful skill of expression of Du Fu’s classic poetry.