Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2006, vol 4 no 2

A Dream of Ruined Walls
by Paul Rouzer, University of Minnesota


There is a renowned passage in Bashō’s Narrow Road to Oku – one that I am sure you know well – in which he visits the ruins of Hiraizumi, the mountain fortress of the twelfth century warlord Fujiwara no Hidehira. It was here that the great warrior and general, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, sought refuge in 1188 from his jealous brother, Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate; and here Yoshitsune took his final stand and perished with his family – the most famous example of tragic nobility in Japanese history.

The three generations of glory of the Fujiwara of Hiraizumi vanished in the space of a dream. The ruins of their Great Gate are two miles this side of the castle. Where once Hidehira’s mansion stood there are now fields, and only Golden Cockerel Mountain [Kinkeizan], the artificial hill constructed at his command, retains its old appearance.

We first climbed up to Palace-on-the-Heights [Mazutakadachi], from where we could see the Kitagami, a big river that flows down from Nambu. . . . It was at Palace-on-the-Heights that Yoshitsune and his picked retainers fortified themselves, but his glory turned in a moment into this wilderness of grass. “Countries may fall, but their rivers and mountains remain; when spring comes to the ruined castle, the grass is green again.” These lines went through my head as I sat on the ground, my bamboo hat spread under me. There I sat weeping, unaware of the passage of time.

natsukusa ya
tsuwamono domo ga
yume no ato
The summer grasses -
Of brave soldiers' dreams
The aftermath.1

As Bashō sees the inevitable working of time and the seasons on these old glories, covering them over with a carpet of summer grass, he is haunted by a couplet by the Chinese poet Du Fu. What has always intrigued me by this passage is the use Bashō makes of him. This is a spectacularly famous moment in a famous piece, in which the greatest of Japanese poets quotes the greatest of Chinese poets. Bashō’s remembrance of Du Fu’s lines here has guaranteed them a special place in the Japanese consciousness. Du Fu’s poem was already well-known, but it became even better known after this, until every Japanese high school student knows it: it has become one of the oldest clichés of the East Asian tradition. And yet Bashō chooses – quite deliberately, I think – to misinterpret the Chinese lines.

The original poem, “Gazing at Spring” (Chun wang), dates from 757, when Du Fu was trapped by rebel forces in the Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an. Following the outbreak of a rebellion led by the general An Lushan in the winter of 755, Du Fu had taken his family to a nearby village away from the capital, and then had been captured by the rebels and forcibly returned to Chang’an in late 756. As he contemplates what he thinks is the certain collapse of the dynasty and of civilization, his own failure in assisting the loyalist forces, and his longing for his absent family, he watches the return of spring’s renewal:

The state is smashed; rivers and hills remain.
The city turns to spring; grass and trees grow thick.
Moved by the times, flowers shed tears.
Resenting parting, birds stir the heart.
Beacon fires have stretched on for three months,
And a letter from home is worth ten thousand in gold.
I have made my hair even sparser from scratching -
Until it won't even support a hatpin.

(My translation here is not meant to be skilled; just literal.)

This is quintessential Du Fu - the way it synthesizes his political concerns with his private worries, for example; and the ironic, self-mocking ending: scratching the head marks perplexity in Chinese poetry, and hats were worn by officials, held on by hatpins that marked the degree and kind of office the wearer held. Du Fu is saying that his worries for the country will soon make it impossible to take public office, and thus to help rectify the country's ills.

I could spend many many lines talking about his poem, but here I only wish to look at the first two couplets:

The state is smashed; rivers and hills remain.
The city turns to spring; grass and trees grow thick.

The first couplet sticks to the rules of parallelism characteristic of Chinese regulated octet verse (though parallelism usually occurs in the second and third couplets). More literally,

State breaks rivers hills exist
city "springs" grass trees thick

"State" and "city" are thus two human social phenomena; "breaks" and "springs" are both verbs (by the flexibility of Chinese grammar, you can use the noun "spring" as a verb - "to become springlike"); "rivers hills" and "grass trees" are phenomena of nature; and "exist" and "thick" are both verbs. Much of the beauty of Chinese poetic parallelism lies in the way juxtapositions produce and reinforce meaning, or create ironic contrasts. Du Fu is saying (in unpoetic paraphrase), "the social and political order to our lives - which we associate with our country - is in ruins. How can it be that the rivers and hills are not destroyed as well? Yet I see that the city is now springlike, for the grass and trees around me have grown thick with the season." Behind these lines exists also a rich Chinese tradition in which a poet visits the site of a ruined city (just as Bashō is visiting Hiraizumi) and writes on the tragedy of its fall. For early Chinese poets (unlike us, who are all too aware of the human capacity to ruin the world around us), nature was a force that constantly threatened to undo the efforts of man and his civilization. The return of nature to the city streets is a threat, a mark of the ephemerality of our efforts. Yet Du Fu is still in the midst of a populous - if rebel-held - metropolis, which is far from a state of destruction. The poet is seeing himself as a prophet, with an apocalyptic double-vision - as the empire crumbles, he can see the grass sprouting through the cracks in the pavement, the vines breaking through the palace walls. The use of "thick" at the end of the second line emphasizes the sense of poetic vision; this is the Chang'an of a ruined future. And nature, indifferent to human concerns, finishes off what the rebels have begun.

Yet Du Fu is not satisfied with the possibility that nature is so indifferent to us that it would ignore our suffering. So he keeps open the possibility of nature's sympathy in the next lines:

Moved by the times, flowers shed tears.
Resenting parting, birds stir the heart.

or, more literally:

moved-by times flower sprinkle tear
resent parting bird move heart

But here, the flexibility of Chinese grammar provides a wonder of poetic ambiguity by making two different meanings possible for each line - something that can't be expressed in translation. The most obvious rendering of the third line (which I have given here) is haunted by an alternative possibility; the reading of "shed" in a causative manner (definitely a possibility in Chinese), which would lead us to see the flowers as evoking the tears rather than shedding them:

Moved by the times, flowers evoke tears

And in the following line, the birds may startle our hearts, but they may also be moved in their own hearts as well:

Resenting parting, birds are moved in their hearts

As a result, we have two completely different possibilities for each line. In one set, Du Fu sees the renewal of nature as an ironic comment on the death of human things, and so it can only make him bitter: "Since I am concerned by the political disasters around me, seeing the flowers at such a time can only make me shed tears; preoccupied as I am with parting from my family, birdsong makes me upset, since I contrast the happiness of birds raising their young with my own separation from wife and children." Alternately, we can read the couplet as Du Fu's insistence that nature really does care: "Moved by the current situation, even the flowers are weeping; and the sounds of the birds suggest that they are moved in their hearts by our own separation from our loved ones." Du Fu can't commit himself one way or the other: does nature care, or doesn't it? And even if we read the couplet the second way, we still have the poet's willful interpretation to affect our reading: the flowers may not be weeping, they may simply be laden with dew; and the birds may sound melancholy to a melancholic.

I hope my lengthy commentary will not seem excessively pedantic; but it may help to notice the sophistication of Du Fu's language, and also the way he often manipulates grammar itself to reflect his own sense of anguish and indecision. No other poet in the Chinese tradition could use language the way he could, or produce so many different effects; as a result, we often come away from him with a sense of exhaustion, both emotional and intellectual. He has put us through the greatest labors of mind and heart.

Back to Bashō, though. It should now be clear that there is something a little odd that he should recall these particular lines of Du Fu at Hiraizumi. And he resituates them in such a way that their meaning completely changes. Note the way Donald Keene translates it above: “Countries may fall, but their rivers and mountains remain; when spring comes to the ruined castle, the grass is green again.” Granted, a translation closer to Du Fu’s original intentions would still work for Bashō’s context as well, but Keene wants to make the lines somehow more applicable to this situation specifically. Instead of applying “country” to the present situation – “our country” – Keene suggests that Bashō is drawing a broad lesson about all countries, and the inevitability of historical decline. He translates, as is typical, the Chinese cheng (“fortifying walls” hence, walled city) as Japanese shiro (“occupied place surrounded by fortifying walls” hence, castle), and adds “ruined” as a descriptive term, assuming (almost) that spring is only obvious at a castle when it is in a ruined state. Finally he adds “again” at the end, suggesting that this seasonal cycle has been occurring over and over – and thus gradually reducing the castle to a natural part of the grassy landscape. Purists may baulk at Keene’s insertion of “ruined” and “again”, but one can argue that these are a natural result of Bashō’s reinterpretation of Du Fu’s poem, regardless of what Du Fu had meant.One other change is worth mentioning as well, one that I am not sure I understand fully. The text as it is generally printed actually misquotes the Du Fu lines slightly: it replaces the last word in the first couplet, “deep” (shen) with the word “green” (qing). Perhaps Bashō wanted to emphasize natural growth as a force of solace and renewal – seeing the summer grasses at Hiraizumi as a reason for hope as well as melancholy; hence “deep” would perhaps seem too dark and brooding a word.2

But we still have to wonder what Bashō intended by quoting this particular poem. If he had wanted simply to refer to a Chinese poem on an already ruined city, there were many that he could have quoted (even some poems by Du Fu himself, describing ruined palaces he had visited). In fact, one early commentator, Riichi (1714-83), suggests that another Chinese poem better reflects the mood of the passage – an anonymous poem dating from about the second century A.D.:

The departed become more distant daily,
While the living are more precious day by day.
I go out the gate, look straight ahead:
And see nothing but mounds and graves.
Some tombs have been plowed under for fields,
Their pines and cypress broken for firewood.
A grieving wind blows in the white poplars,
Their soughing overwhelms me with sadness.
I wish I could return to my native town,
But the road allows me no homecoming.

But I would argue that Bashō knew what he was doing. Imagining that his audience would recognize the Du Fu poem – and the circumstances of its composition – Bashō knew we would see the relocation of the lines and recognize the quotation as a creative resituating, a reinterpretation. I think it is important to remember that Bashō’s favorite poets were Du Fu and Saigyō (1119-1190), and both poets were men who wrote in times of political turmoil and violence. Bashō aspired to the depth and seriousness of their works – in many cases, he often writes of himself as Saigyō – but he also knew that a wealth of historical experience separated him from them. For Bashō, living in the relatively late, relatively peaceful times of Edo, the world is a world of memories, of stories, of tragedies seen from a distance. It is not that he is not moved deeply by these events (no one could read The Narrow Road and not understand Bashō’s need to commune with the past), but he recognizes that he is a poet who is looking more often backwards than forwards. And for him to meet Du Fu’s glance – for the two of them to communicate – he must turn towards Du Fu just as Du Fu looks into the future, to the time when his own chaotic present will be turned to melancholy ruins. He is telling Du Fu that his worst fears were confirmed: that his city (like all cities, like Hiraizumi) has turned to ruins, and that grass is covering all. Yet at the same time, he is reassuring his predecessor, promising him that such chaos will pass as well, leaving behind a peace of a sort, one that seeks to understand the past and empathize with it, without surrendering the immediacy of the present that gives us access to that past. From Bashō’s perspective, that rich history and its poetry is now the dream we trace and try to remember in the landscape around us – as the accompanying haikai describes it, it is “the traces of a dream” (yume no ato).

And to go on even more extravagantly: this suggests to me what differences lie at the heart of Chinese regulated octets and Japanese haikai. Since octets are at their best when they are exploiting syntactic and linguistic ambiguity to say many things at once; their voice can express the ambivalence of the human heart that cannot decide how things are exactly, and is discontented with saying only one thing about them. It is an art that strives to communicate explicitly the many correlations between things. Haikai can be equally ambiguous – but is an ambiguity born of silence, of leaving those many correlations implicit within our own mind. Rather than choosing from the many complex, interlocking assertions a good Chinese regulated verse leaves us with, it tells us to make up our own assertions. Chinese poetry may indeed seem laconic and understated by Western standards of poetry, but it can seem rather talky next to a piece of haibun or a haikai sequence. This is not to privilege haikai over Chinese poetry – both are supreme poetic forms of their respective cultures. But if we keep ourselves open to how different poetic forms do different things (even as we read them in translation, from a cultural position radically different) we can grant them their own specific powers to move us.


1 Matsuo Bashō, The Narrow Road to Oku (Donald Keene, translator; Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1996), p. 87. I use the Donald Keene translation here out of the dozen or so available, for reasons I hope will be clear later.

2 Though the situation may even be more complicated. My colleague, Stephen Forrest, a scholar of Edo literature, tells me that manuscript evidence suggests that Bashō may have made further errors in remembering the Du Fu lines, errors that were partially corrected by his copyist Soryū. Deeper conclusions on this issue I leave to scholars more knowledgeable about Bashō’s works than I am.


Paul Rouzer received his PhD from Harvard University in 1989 in classical Chinese literature, and has taught at Columbia University and at Harvard. He is the author of Writing Another's Dream: The Poetry of Wen Tingyun (1993) and Articulated Ladies: Gender and the Male Community in Early Chinese Texts (2001), as well as an introductory textbook for the study of classical Chinese (forthcoming, Fall 2006). He is currently Associate Professor of Chinese Literature at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. He is interested in issues of East Asian poetics and translation, as well as the influence of Chinese poetic traditions in East Asia and North America.