Du Fu — Nanmu

“Where does Du Fu live?” travelers often asked of the reclusive Chinese poet.

And locals replied, “Down by the riverbank, underneath old Nanmu.”

The 17th century Japanese haiku poet Matuso Basho had his Basho, the weakly banana tree; the 8th century Chinese poet Du Fu, Nanmu, a tall stately conifer.

The Storm

In 759, in the midst of the devastating An Lushan Rebellion, the Chinese poet Du Fu moved to Chengdu. He stayed there in relative safety for four years, quietly writing poetry waiting for the storm to pass. For Du Fu, the Nanmu tree in front of his thatched cottage was a refuge in the broader political struggle between the Tang dynasty and rebelling troops who were primarily foreigners. The Dragon mentioned in the poem was the imperial symbol of the Tang Dynasty. The tiger, the rebels.

Following this is Matsuo Basho’s haiku about rain dripping in pots during a thunderstorm.

My Nanmu Uprooted by the Storm and Sighing

My Nanmu leaned on the river bank, in front of my thatched cottage,
An age old legend says that it’s two hundred years old.
It was foretold its thatch should cover my home,
In May one could already hear the cicadas warning.

When a southeast wind came and violently shook the land,
The river churned, stones tossed, among gusts of flowing clouds.
But my tree held back the thunderstorm in a battle of strength,
Is it heaven’s mandate to choose to cut the roots?

In a dismal storm an old tree is the best place to be,
Underneath thick foliage of an evergreen tree.
Passing travelers lingered here, afraid of snow and frost,
And those who walked came to listen to the music in its branches.

As the tiger falls to the dragon, cast into a thorny patch,
Tracks of tears and drops of blood fall onto my chest.
Where shall I go to sing my poems?
From this point on, my thatched cottage lacks all color.

Du Fu, ca. 759-763

Notes. The pine tree is a symbol of perseverance in winter and longevity. But what happens when a storm fells a tree? The cicada was a symbol of Du Fu’s simple, humble lifestyle. Tianyi, heaven’s mandate, fate. The wind blowing through the pine needles was a familiar Chinese metaphor for nature making its own music. For the meteorologically inclined: a southeast wind could mean both a wind that is out of the southeast and one that is southeast in direction. The An Lushan Rebellion began in the northwest and came south. “Feng” winds (Du Fu uses the term piaofeng, a whirlwind) were associated with violent, erratic, and disruptive storms.

Other Sources. A comprehensive collection of Du Fu’s poetry is found online in PDF format.. Search Du Fu and Steve Owens. Owens’ work complements another work by Xiaofei Tian, Du Fu quanji jiaozhu 杜甫全集校注, which is also available online in PDF format.





Here is Matsuo Basho’s haiku about the banana tree outside his cottage in an autumn storm.

Banana tree in a fierce autumn gale
I wonder if I can hear
Rain in the tub, tonight!

Bashō nowaki shite
Tarai ni ame o
Kiku yo kana

芭蕉  野分   して盥に雨を聞く夜哉

Matsuo Basho, Autumn 1691

For more about Matsuo Basho, click here.

Haiku Lives


I get together with three old friends and play bridge once a month. No one is especially good, some are worse than others, and the bidding systems never seem to get straightened out. If bids are like smoke signals, they tend to get obscured by the constant table talk. Often after a bid, a puzzled look comes over my partner’s face followed by a single word,


To which there are various haiku like responses like this one:

Well, a deep subject, full of water or empty.

To which, in renga like fashion, another player may add:

Whale, big and white — Moby Dick

And my dear deceased father-in-law would say:

Well, it’s as cold as a well digger’s ass, in Winter.

Haiku lives

Three lines, two things combine, to make One. Haiku is the divine Act of Creation.

Later, in one of those random acts of spontaneous discovery, I was looking into the ever expanding internet well, and its random contributions, when I came across the name Gao Xingjian. He is the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

Curious, I went back to the well and began reading from his writings. Here is a partial quote from a short poem of six lines. I have included the first three as it seems appropriate her.


Endlessly deep

God …

Gao Xingjian, Wandering Spirit and Metaphysical Thoughts

Well, reading on, Nobel being on my mind, I discovered that this year’s Nobel Prize for literature went to Annie Ernaux. The explanation, (for one must always explain one’s self), “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”

Haiku lives.

Well, my daughter and I were talking the other day about Virginia Woolf. She, who suffered from depression most of her life, and took her life by suicide one spring day in March. Filling her coat pockets with stones and wading into the River Ouse in Sussex. Well, the river is not fast, it is not wide, the process of taking one’s life could not have been easy.

Well, that leads to this thought:

Well, a deep depression, sometimes dug by hand.

One can read Virginia Woolf and one should. Along with James Joyce, she developed the “stream of consciousness” point of view. Gertrude Stein called it “continuing present.” Her writing style influenced other writers such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway. She is perhaps, the very first modern “feminist” writer, though my daughter and I disagree on what that term means. (Sappho was the first recorded feminist, that is if one neglects Eve who convinced Adam it was time to leave Paradise and work for a living.)

I have modified a few of her quotes as follows:

Well, I find it more difficult to murder a phantom, than reality.

Well, a woman has no country, the world is my country.

On the outskirts of agony, some fellow sits, watching, pointing.

History does not record, but anonymous, was most often a woman.

Well, nothing really happens, unless it is written and recorded.

As for her final thought, who knows? Possibly this:

Someone has to die, that the rest of others should value it more.

Last thought:

Wasn’t it Virginia Slims cigarettes that came up with the slogan, “You’ve come a long way baby.”

Virginia Woolf, RIP.

Cuckoo for Cuckoos

The cuckoo is considered a lazy bird, a clever bird, whose rhyming call gives it its western name — kyo, kyo. Cuckoos are brood parasites, meaning their young are raised by other birds.

Therefore, much like a poet.

There is also the familiar story of the warlords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu who said:

Oda Nobunaga:
nakanu nara koroshite shimae hototogisu,
if the cuckoo does not sing, kill it.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi:
nakanu nara nakashite mishō hototogisu,
if the cuckoo does not sing, coax it

Tokugawa Ieyasu:
Nakanu nara naku made matte miyou hototogisu
if the cuckoo doesn’t sing, wait until it does.


Soon after completing his epic journey to the northern interior (Oku no Hosomichi), Basho remembered his student days in Kyoto and wrote:

Even in Kyoto, one yearns for the cry “kyoo-kyoo” and the cuckoo
Kyoo nite mo, Kyoo natsukashi ya, hototogisu
京にても 京なつかしや 時鳥

Matsuo Basho, 1690

Here is a sampling Matsuo Basho’s haiku beginning with 時鳥 and ほととぎす and its variations — hototogisu (cuckoo).

hototogisu / ima wa haikaishi / naki yo kana
the cuckoo sings and the world has no poets

It is a common belief that the cuckoo vomits blood. Bonito or Skipjack Tuna are a popular fish in Japan with a deep red color.

hototogisu / katsuo o some ni / keri kerashi
the cuckoo stains the Bonito fish I suppose

hototogisu / kie yuku kata ya / shima hitotsu
a cuckoo flying to an island becoming one thing

hototogisu / koe yokotau ya / mizu no ue
the cuckoo flies, singing, stretching out, on the cold water lies

hototogisu / maneku ka mugi no / mura obana
a cuckoo invited by barley and its waving fronds

hototogisu / matsuki wa ume no / hana sake ri
the cuckoo and plum flowers in June, both have bloomed

hototogisu / naku naku tobu zo / isogawashi
The cuckoo, crying, singing, flying, oh, so busy

The following haiku makes sense if one imagines that Basho’s writing box (suzuri-bako, 硯箱) has the image of a singing cuckoo on the lid.

hototogisu / naku ne ya furuki / suzuri-bako
the cuckoo singing in a tree and on my writing box

The following haiku is unclear to me. Is the cuckoo in a patch of irises five feet wide, or perched on a five foot tall iris? The later 18th century artist Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川 広重) drew a picture of a cuckoo flying above a tall iris suggesting the later.

hototogisu / naku ya go shaku no / ayamegusa
a cuckoo crying above a five-foot iris.

hototogisu / ō takeyabu o / moru tsuki yo
a cuckoo in a bamboo grove on a moonlit night

In 1689, on the journey north (Oku no Hosomichi), Basho visited the waterfall Urami-no-Taki, so named because one could walk behind the cascading falls. The rhyming words “urami” and “ura omote” coming to mind. The suggestion, I suppose, that one has a private face and a public face. Sometimes we have to hide to see reality.

For a while I hid under the waterfall at the start of the Summer Retreat.”

hototogisu / Urami-no-taki no / ura omote
a cuckoo as seen behind the waterfall, back and front

For additional Basho haiku on the cuckoo and alternate translations and comprehensive explanations see:



Also see Hototogisu, the longest running Japanese haiku magazine.

Hiroshige, Cuckoo and Iris

How Interesting

Ten Years

Almost ten years had passed by.

Five years since Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton (1684), a journey west to Kyoto and Nara. One year since A Visit to Sarashina Village, a journey to Nagano and moon viewing at the rice fields, 1688.

Ten years since Matsuo Basho left Edo, crossing the Sumida River, taking up residence in a simple cottage, away from the crowds. If this hut was like Minomushian, the Iga retreat Basho occasionally used, it was a simple house with a couple of tatami mat and a sliding divider between the bedroom and living/dining area. A garden space surrounded the house and perhaps an indoor garden that could be viewed from inside. Outside, there was a banana tree, a gift of a disciple, and the origin of the name Basho (banana plant).

Almost ten years had past, and Basho was again feeling restless.

Like his idol, Saiygo, the 12th c. Japanese monk and poet, Basho wished to travel again. This time with his neighbor and friend, Kawai Sora (河合曾良), who would accompany him on his most famous journey, Oku no Hosomichi, in the spring of 1689.

おもしろや ことしの春も 旅のそら
omoshiro ya kotoshi no haru mo tabi no sora

how interesting!
this spring, I shall go
traveling on the Road (with Sora)

Matsuo Basho, Edo, 1689

After this, Matsuo Basho had one more trip. His last.

Japanese cottage

Omoshiro ya

Omoshiro ya, おもしろや, how interesting, or fun.

There is not much interesting about this haiku except for its connection with Sora, Basho’s traveling companion on the Oku no Hosomichi. The two took their famous journey to the northern interior of Japan in the spring of 1689. Tabi no Sora, 旅のそら (旅の空), literally, a Journey under the Sky, meaning on the open road.

Of course, the homophone “sora” may just be a coincidence. Life is full of them

More omoshiro:

How, pray tell, does rain become snow?

omoshiroshi / yuki ni ya nara n / fuyu no ame
how interesting / snow is / winter’s rain (winter, 1687)

In summer the ancient art of catching sweet fish is done using lanterns to attract the fish and cormorant birds to dive in the water and swallow the fish. A noose around the bird’s neck prevents it from swallowing the fish.

omoshirō te / yagate kanashiki / u-bune kana
how exciting / then sad / fishing with cormorant (summer, 1688)

Shortly before he died.

omoshiroki / aki no asane ya / teishu buri
how pleasant / asleep on a summer’s afternoon / like the lord of the house (autumn, 1694)

On the Road Again

On the road again
Just can’t wait to get on the road again

On the Road Again, Willie Nelson

Traveling seems to be in our DNA. We take vacations, we change jobs, we move. And children move away from their parents. The human population covers the world. Traveling is in our genes.

Basho, like Jack Kerouac and other literary figures, was on the road a lot. Inbspired by the poet Saiygo, Basho made as many as five travels within Japan that became the subject of books or travelogues.

“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.”

On the Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957