Ballad of an Old Cypress

by Du Fu

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The Poem

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Last Updated November 13, 2023.

Du Fu's "Ballad of an Old Cypress" contemplates a challenging contradiction he and his fellow Confucian scholars face – the struggle of putting their significant talents to practical use. Du Fu's intended audience was comprised of aspiring scholars as well as disheartened civil servants.

This poem was meant to encourage actively engaging in politics, tempered with caution about the challenges involved. It also offers solace for those who have become disillusioned while gently reminding them of the potential for a return to active service. This thematic complexity is intricately woven into the poem through various devices, such as historical references and the poet's symbolic portrayal of the mighty cypress tree.

As a prominent Confucian scholar and poet during the Tang dynasty, Du Fu faced the complexities of navigating the political landscape of his time. Born into a family of scholars, Du Fu received a classical education and aspired to serve in government. However, Du Fu's career ambitions were repeatedly thwarted by political turmoil, social upheavals, and the imperial court's failure to recognize and reward his abilities. This poem was written not long after the An Lushan rebellion and reflects the anxieties and uncertainty that this devastating event caused.

The cypress tree, a symbol of enduring strength, resilience, and steadfastness, can be seen as a metaphor for Du Fu himself and his fellow scholars. Like the tree facing the wind's fierce blast, Du Fu confronted the challenges of his era. The tree's potential to accept the ax without resistance may reflect Du Fu's pragmatic acknowledgment of the political realities that limited the use of his talents.

The historical allusions to figures like Zhuge Liang and Liu Bei also tie back to Du Fu's experiences. Zhuge Liang, a renowned strategist, and Liu Bei, a virtuous ruler, represent ideals that Du Fu may have aspired to see in the leaders of his time. The reference to the cypress in front of Zhuge Liang's shrine adds a layer of reverence, suggesting that Du Fu sees this tree as a witness to historical greatness, much like himself, who witnessed and endured the upheavals of his era.

The Tang Dynasty was a period in which two Chinese philosophies thrived – Taoism and Confucianism. The poem draws on Taoist principles using the cypress tree to symbolize nature's lasting resilience. The tree withstands the elements, including the wind's fierce blast, embodying the Taoist idea of yielding and bending rather than resisting.

The cyclical references in the poem, such as the clouds linking with the mists and the moon sharing the chill of the Snowy Mountains, echo Taoist beliefs in the cyclical nature of life. This aligns with the Taoist emphasis on harmony with the natural rhythms of existence. It is also connected with the Taoist notion of seeking solitude and retreat, as the descriptions of the tree's setting suggest finding strength and peace in withdrawal from the chaotic world.

However, as a Confucian, Du Fu felt that talented people had a duty of service for the greater good. In Confucian thought, there is a strong emphasis on the moral duty of individuals, particularly scholars, to contribute to the well-being and harmony of society. Therefore, rather than retreating forever from public life, Du Fu argues that those with the skills to serve the state have a greater civic responsibility.

The cypress, enduring the wind's fierce blast and standing tall, becomes a metaphor for individuals who, like Confucian scholars, should withstand challenges and actively participate in the political and social affairs of the world. Therefore, the simple Confucian message in the poem is a call to individuals of talent to...

(This entire section contains 844 words.)

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persevere in their commitment to public service, even in the face of adversity or the potential lack of immediate recognition.

To help make these points in "Ballad of an Old Cypress," Du Fu uses a narrative structure that takes readers on a contemplative journey. The poem unfolds in a way that is both visually descriptive and thematically layered. Initially, Du Fu provides a physical description of the cypress tree, highlighting its bronze-like branches, rock-like roots, and strength in the face of rain and wind. This description serves as a foundation for the following metaphorical exploration, setting the stage for the tree to symbolize human talent and endurance.

Du Fu employs narrative techniques as the poem progresses to weave a deeper story. The allusions to the historical figures of Zhuge Liang and Liu Bei add a historical dimension to the narrative and create a shared context that his contemporaries would have understood. Readers may note how Du Fu transitions from the tangible description of the cypress to its metaphorical representation, guiding them through layers of meaning that touch on the struggles of scholars, the cyclical nature of life, and the potential for renewal.

The poem, therefore, unfolds like a tapestry, seamlessly blending the concrete with the abstract and guiding the audience through the poet's thoughts and reflections. This layering of narrative techniques elevates the poem beyond a simple description of a tree, turning it into a contemplative exploration of universal themes that resonate across time and cultures.

Forms and Devices

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“Ballad of an Old Cypress” is written in qigu (chiku), an old poetic form in which each line consists of seven words. This form was an effective vehicle for Du Fu’s impassioned poem on the issue concerning great talents. As an ancient, popular ballad form, it allowed him to convey his own views and emotions directly to his audience—aspiring Confucian scholars or disappointed talents in seclusion.

Among the most important technical aspects of the poem that have survived the translation into English is Du Fu’s skillfully orchestrated presentation of the cypress as the central image in the poem. He presents the tree from various perspectives and distances. A close-up of its “frosted bark” is accompanied by a distant shot of it standing on the northern bank of the Yangtze River with the Snow Mountains looming in the distance. A vertical view of the tree of “forty armspans” is followed by an angle shot of it reaching the sky “two thousand feet” above the ground. A mystic vision of the tree “vapor-linking” to the Wu Gorge is placed beside a heroic image of it standing “high and alone” braving “many violent storms.” Finally, a current view of the tree against the background of a tottering “great mansion” is complemented by a historical survey of it in light of the tumultuous years of the Three Kingdoms.

The poet’s artistic manipulation of the central image in the poem endows the tree with metaphorical, symbolic, and allegorical meanings. The cypress stands for Zhuge Liang as well as other gifted scholars, including the poet himself; it embodies their “upright straightness” and their aloofness; it manifests their potential to shape the destiny of their country; and it reflects their aspirations and frustrations. The cypress also stands as a symbol of the ideal that Confucian scholars pursue, that of bringing their talents and skills into full play in the service of a noble ruler. However, as the meeting of Zhuge Liang and Liu Bei is considered to be a rare event in history, the lone cypress also points to the tremendous odds against a “man of grand aims.”

Stylistic diversity is another important aspect that remains somewhat visible in the English translation of the poem. Objective depictions of the cypress in Kuizhou are juxtaposed with extravagant statements about its mystic role on the grand landscape. As shown at the very beginning of the poem, use of prose coexists with indulgence in poetic elevation, as indicated in lines depicting the “vapors” of the tree touching “the full length of Wu Gorge” and its “chill” reaching “the white of the Mountains of Snow.” Finally, an optimistic voice calling for persistent participation in politics is intermingled with a somewhat pessimistic voice endorsing resignation. Hence, one finds incorporated into the poem such diverse elements as authentic details and romantic visions, prosaic narrative and euphoric exaltation, the language of Confucian political activism and the rhetoric of Daoist passivism.