Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534

Family reunion is an important theme in Chinese poetry, and many poems are based upon the “reunion topos [topic].” In a poem employing this topos, the full moon—especially that of the Mid-Autumn Festival, when the moon is roundest and brightest—takes on symbolic meanings because it reminds the poet of his or a family member’s separation from the home. “Moonlit Night” certainly belongs to the genre of poetry built around the “reunion topos.”

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What sets “Moonlit Night” apart from other poems dealing with separation and reunion, however, is its ingenious treatment of the object of longing. Traditionally, it is usually a man who yearns for a reunion with a friend or a brother. Du Fu has, in fact, written another “Moonlit Night” poem about his brother using the reunion topos. The yearning for one’s wife in this poem subtly adds to the general theme of separation and reunion the somewhat more novel theme of love. In addition, as far as the tradition of Chinese love poetry is concerned, it is usually the wife who yearns for the return of the traveling husband, whereas here it is the husband who yearns to return to his wife, who he believes is also yearning at the same time for his return. In its layering of yearning upon yearning, “Moonlit Night” may be described as a love poem in which the relationship between subject and object is obscured. The ending of the poem, which must have shocked its readers because of its rather direct proclamation of passionate feelings, in effect inaugurates a new sensibility that Chinese male poets will feel comfortable to exploit thereafter.

From a larger perspective, it can be said that a political theme is also intertwined with the reunion theme and the love theme of the poem. In “Moonlit Night,” as lines 1, 2, 5, and 6 make clear, one of the basic situations is that of a woman who is saddened by the absence of her husband. This allows the reader to see the poem from the perspective of the “boudoir plaint” convention that has been popular since the Han dynasty. In a “boudoir plaint” poem, a wife usually laments the absence of her heartless husband, who is traveling as a merchant, fooling around with courtesans in the city, serving in the capital as a bureaucrat, or stationed at the frontier to fight against barbarians. In a subtle sense, “boudoir plaint” poems are not simply love poems but also, more importantly, allusive critiques of government policies such as war and social evils such as the practice of concubinage that have led to the desolation or desertion of the woman. T’ang poetry is in fact replete with examples of “boudoir plaint” poems that raise serious questions about the tragic dimensions of war. In Du Fu’s poem, a political theme along the lines of the “boudoir plaint” tradition thus lurks behind the mention of place names such as Fu-chou and Ch’ang-an. Considering Du Fu’s reputation as a patriotic poet, the hardships involving him, his family, the people, and the nation as a whole could very well be part of the cause for tears to be shed upon the reunion of husband and wife.

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