Ballad of an Old Cypress

by Du Fu

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

“Ballad of an Old Cypress” is, among other things, Du Fu’s reflection on a paradox with which he and his fellow Confucian scholars have to cope, namely, that their great talents are “hard to put to use.” It ends with the poet urging his audience not to “sigh.” Since Du Fu’s audience consists of aspiring scholars and disappointed talents in seclusion, his appeal has different implications for them. It encourages the former to strive for active participation in politics but, at the same time, warns them of the difficulty ahead. It consoles the latter in their Taoist seclusion but reminds them of the possibility of a return to active service. This thematic multiplicity is informed and reinforced by many of the devices in the poem. Among these devices are the historical allusion to Zhuge Liang and Liu Bei and the poet’s symbolic depiction of the cypresses.

A genius in political and military affairs, Zhuge Liang chose to live under a thatched roof in a remote place called Longzhong; however, he closely watched the political development in the Three Kingdoms that divided China, and he cherished a secret desire to help achieve the reunification of his country. Liu Bei, ruler of Kingdom of Shu, visited him three times in order to seek his advice on effective strategies against the other two kingdoms. It was Liu Bei’s visits that “sent” the “cypress” or the “timber” to the “great mansion.” Zhuge Liang was named prime minister and devoted himself to the cause of ending the wars among the Three Kingdoms.

Du Fu’s reference to Zhuge Liang provides his audience with a shared context. Regardless of their own situations, the two groups of scholars will see the meeting of Zhuge Liang and Liu Bei as a Confucian scholar’s dream come true. To the men of “grand aims” among the audience, the historical event is encouraging: There was a high-minded ruler in the past, and what happened in the past may very well repeat itself in the future. To the disappointed scholars in seclusion, the event is comforting. It at least makes them wonder whether it is possible that some day a royal visitor will come to knock at the door of a thatched hut again. However, the story of Zhuge Liang is also a story of dreams unfulfilled. The prime minister was completely exhausted by the very mission that he worked arduously to accomplish. Like the cypress with “its bitter core” unable to “keep out/ intrusions of termites,” he fell seriously ill during a prolonged military campaign. He died in Wuzhangyuan at the age of fifty-three before he was able to complete his magnificent political and social programs.

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