Ballad of an Old Cypress

by Du Fu

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Last Updated November 13, 2023.

Du Fu's "Ballad of an Old Cypress" is an emotional poem from the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) that metaphorically explores themes of resilience and endurance. The poem is also deeply rooted in the personal experiences of Du Fu during a time of great turmoil and change. 


Through concise language, Du Fu crafts a vivid and accessible pathway, allowing readers to reflect on the enduring nature of the human spirit using the imagery of an old cypress tree. The work subtly unfolds, avoiding a simple recitation of events. Instead, it contemplates the deeper significance of life's struggles and the strength of steadfastness.


The poem can be split into three eight-line sections. The first section begins by describing the stately cypress tree planted in front of the shrine of Zhuge Liang, a skilled military tactician, scholar, and statesman who lived centuries earlier. Employing several similes, Du Fu compares the tree branches to "green bronze" and the roots to solid stone. The tree's height seems to reach up to the heavens themselves.


Beyond the literal cypress, Du Fu makes the tree a metaphor for human talent. He seems to indicate that the accomplishments of great people far outlive them much the way that this "tree continues to be cherished among men."


Next, Du Fu considers why the tree is important in history, saying it reminds people of a meeting between Zhuge Liang, and Liu Bei, a wise ruler and warlord. It is not clear whether or not Liu Bei recognized the scholar's talents. However, this meeting csauses the poet to consider how abilities can exist but are only helpful when put to use. This is much like how this tree has so much potential — its wood could be used to build many great buildings — but is left standing, unused.


In the second section, the poet Du Fu recalls visiting the Brocade Pavilion in Chengdu, home to shrines for Zhuge Liang and his lord. He describes ancient cypresses and feels a sense of loss, reflecting on Zhuge Liang's unfulfilled political ambitions. Du Fu then contrasts this with a solitary, resilient tree in Kuizhou, symbolizing nature's creative power.


The poet marvels at the resilience and endurance of the tall cypress tree. The tree's ability to withstand the fierce winds, despite its isolated position and great height, is attributed to "the power of Divine Providence." The comparison of the tree's grip to a snake and the recognition of its straightness as the work of supernatural forces create a sense of wonder for the forces of nature and the mysterious design behind the tree's existence. 


In the final section, Du Fu introduces a hypothetical scenario of a great mansion collapsing and requiring new wooden beams. This, along with the image of the ten thousand oxen required for the project, illustrates the immense size of the tree, suggesting that it could provide material for such a monumental construction project


In this section Du Fu is thinking about the troubled politics of his time. He compares the Tang Dynasty to a falling mansion. Talented scholars are like a strong cypress tree, which could support the mansion. But, there is no ruler like Liu Bei to help. Du Fu ends by saying that the best people are often the hardest to use well.


In the closing lines, Du Fu continues to reflect on the tree's enduring strength and resilience. The cypress has never resisted the ax, symbolizing its acceptance of fate or adversity. However, the poet notes that even if the tree were to fall, its sheer size makes it practically impossible for anyone to carry it away. Despite the challenges the tree has faced, such as being afflicted by insects, it continues to host phoenixes in its fragrant leaves, symbolizing renewal and perseverance.


The poet offers a message of hope, urging those with ambition and those who go unnoticed not to despair. He suggests that greatness, like the ancient cypress, often goes unrecognized or underappreciated by the world. This poignant message encourages perseverance in the face of challenges, emphasizing the enduring value of greatness even if it remains hidden or unacknowledged.

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