The Garden of the Golden Valley
by Du Mu (a.d. 803-852)
John C.H. Wu (吴经熊, Wu Jing-xiong), in his fine book The Four Seasons of Tang Poetry, has this to say about Du Mu, whose name he spells in the older style:
Tu Mu (803-852) was one of those poets who, disappointed with life, sought refuge in wine, women, and song … Not all his poems deal with love; but whatever he sings is charged with wintry folornness and expressed in a style which has some funereal sleekness about it …
Dr. Wu places Du Mu in the "winter" of the Tang dynasty, the period from 840 to 978. He explains himself thus:
Around 840 Tu Mu wrote a poem to a Taoist priest who was by that time nearly a centenarian:
Pale and emaciated, you have lived almost a hundred years.
To the weather-beaten temple another Spring has come.
The whole world has long since become a battlefield:
You alone of our contemporaries were born in the days of peace.
The fact is that ever since the rebellion of An Lu-shan in 755, the T'ang dynasty had not known a single day of peace. Nor was there the slightest ray of hope for the restoration of the body politic to anything like its normal health. On the contrary, things were moving from bad to worse; and more than a century was to elapse before China was united again under a new regime, namely, the Sung dynasty, which established itself in 960. During that long period, with the exception of twelve years (from 847 to 858, in which a series of victories were effected against some of the bordering tribes, and there was a brief breathing space and a faint promise of a renaissance), the country was writhing under all sorts of evil, such as intrigues of the eunuchs, brigandage, uprisings, massacres, mutinies, party squabbles, foreign invasions, rebellions of the warlords, famines and plagues. At the wake of the fall of the T'ang dynasty in 906 China was split into a host of little dominions, like a flower-pot shattered into shards. Among those little states, the Southern T'ang, which was established in 937 with Nanking as its capital and was to last until 975, is of special interest to us. For in the first place, its founder was a descendant of T'ang; and secondly, a formidable group of poets, including Princes Li Chin and Li Yu, flourished in it. It may therefore be regarded, in poetry as well as in politics, as the afterglow of the T'ang dynasty.
In short, the Winter of T'ang poetry covers a period of about one hundred and forty years, that is, from 840 to 978, the latter being the year in which Prince Li Yu died.
On Dr. Wu's schema (which I shall not presume to argue with: he was a very learned man: I pass some remarks on his translation of the Tao Te Ching here) our poet is writing at the very beginning of the Tang "winter." He is, in other words, a sort of November poet.
The Garden of the Golden Valley is an actual place, in the present-day city of Luoyang, in China's Henan Province. Back in the Western Jin dynasty (a.d. 265-313, and so preceding the Tang, which was 618-906) it was the estate and villa of a wealthy man named Shi Chong (石崇), whose dates are usually given as 249-300. A general named Sun Xiu (孙秀) coveted Shi's favorite concubine, a girl named Lu Zhu (绿珠). When Shi refused to hand over the girl, General Sun sent troops to seize her. Rather than be taken, Lu Zhu leapt to her death from the upper storey of a tall pagoda. That is the allusion in the last line.
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
Witter Bynner's translation of this poem, in his book The Jade Mountain, is as follows:
The Garden of the Golden Valley
Stories of passion make sweet dust,
Calm water, grasses unconcerned.
At sunset, when birds cry in the wind,
Petals are falling like a girl's robe long ago.
An utterly literal, word-for-word, translation goes like this:
Golden Valley Garden
Many-splendored matters scatter expel fragrant dust,
Flowing water without feeling grass self joyful.
Sun evening east wind repine cry bird,
Fall flower like same drop tower person.