In the West we have Greek philosophy, Roman law, Renaissance art, and Italian opera. In China poetry is the most striking cultural element of Chinese civilization.
Poetry was one of the earliest forms of written expression in China, with the Shijing 诗经 shījīng or The Book of Songs dating back to the 7th Century BC. It became the highest form of creative expression throughout Chinese civilization and was promoted by the government and pursued as a vehicle for personal pleasure and communication. For most of China’s history, poetry was an integral part of daily life for the educated class. In the Tang Dynasty (618-908) alone more poetry was composed than in all the rest of the world combined until the 18th Century. One anthology, the Complete Tang Poems (全唐诗 quán táng shī), which is considered incomplete, contains 48,900 poems by 2,200 poets. People in the Chinese speaking world today still read and compose classical poems in the styles developed during the Tang Dynasty.
When I visited Chengdu earlier this year, one of the first places I wanted to visit was the thatched hut of perhaps China’s most famous poet, Du Fu. What I wasn’t quite expecting was the carnival-like atmosphere at this very popular cultural site. It was swarming with Chinese tourists and was a reaffirmation to me of the importance of poetry in Chinese culture, history, and civilization. Not only does the site pay homage to Du Fu, but it also celebrates all of Chinese poetry and the great poets throughout history.
Du Fu (712-770, sometimes written Tu Fu) was a scholar-official during the Tang Dynasty. His career varied from government official to full-time poet at various times during his life. Du Fu was an innovator in language and structure and wrote about public and private life. His poems are accessible, intimate at times, and offer a glimpse into life in China during this period. He spent about five years in Sichuan Province where he built a comfortable thatched cottage on the outskirts of Chengdu. He wrote prolifically during this period, and though he suffered financial hardship during this time, it was a kind of hermitage for him and it was a happy and peaceful time. The Du Fu Thatched Cottage attraction is now in the center of Chengdu. Archeological excavations done on the site have unearthed buildings and pavilions that fit the time period when Du Fu lived there and are very similar to structures he describes in his poems.
The whole complex is in a beautiful park with bamboo groves, flowers, trees, and ponds. At the entrance to the park is a long paved “walkway of the stars.” This consists of a timeline of Chinese poetry with each poet having a star on the pavement. Statues of the major poets line the pathway as well.
The complex also had several buildings with statues, paintings, calligraphy, and some excavation sites.
The actual Thatched Cottage was a replication of course. But it was interesting nonetheless.
And a few shots of what it probably looked like on the inside.
It was an enjoyable few hours we spent at this park. It was refreshing that the Chinese still care about their heritage and that poetry is still an important part of their past, and hopefully their future.