| 2019-07-18 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Generally, this character means a very small island. The right part of the character originally represented a household of fishermen and the left part symbolized water. They together represent a piece of land surrounded by water that can accommodate only one household.

zhǔ qīng shā bái niǎo fēi huí

Zhu means an islet while qing means “clear.” Sha refers to sand and bai means “white.” Niao is birds and fei hui means “to fly back.” This line depicts a scene in which birds are lingering above an islet covered with white sand and surrounded by clean water.

This is a line of a poem by the great Tang poet, Du Fu (712–770). In the poem titled “Climbing a Terrace,” Du portrayed a dreary scene in autumn—“Wind blusters high in the sky and monkeys wail;/ Clear the islet with white sand where birds are wheeling;/ Everywhere the leaves fall rustling from the trees,/ While on for ever rolls the turbulent Yangtze./ All around is autumnal gloom and I, long from home,/ A prey all my life to ill heath, climb the terrace alone;/ Hating the hardships which have frosted my hair,/ Sad that illness has made me give up the solace of wine” (trans. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang). The first half of the poem focuses on the landscape the author saw from a terrace above the Yangtze River—winds whistling, leaves falling and the river rushing perpetually. Fallen leaves often remind people of death and the perpetually flowing water is a symbol of quickly passing time. In the last half of the poem, Du directly expresses his strong sense of being adrift and isolated for most of his life. As a stranger far away from home with the years dragging on and illness raging, Du in the poem cannot help feeling sad in late autumn.

Du composed this poem in 767, four years after the An Lushan Rebellion ended. This devastating rebellion heavily weakened the Tang Empire, causing long-term turbulence throughout the country. Du had been wandering for years after briefly serving under a warlord. The suffering of the country and the extreme personal hardships he experienced endowed his poem with a note of deep grief and profound compassion for humanity, caught in the grip of senseless war.