Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Wall Carvings, Elixirs, and the Celestial King: An Exegetic Exercise on Du Fu's Poems on Two Palaces

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Wall Carvings, Elixirs, and the Celestial King: An Exegetic Exercise on Du Fu's Poems on Two Palaces

Article excerpt

National crises and personal plight set the murky tone of Du Fu's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (712-70) poetry after the An Lushan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (d. 757) rebellion, which began to cause havoc in the Tang empire in the winter of 755-56, especially when the Tang emperors were later forced for a time to abandon the capital Chang'an, which had been occupied by the rebels. At the court of Emperor Suzong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (r. 756-62) in Fengxiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (modern Fengxiang, Shaanxi), Du, then Reminder of the Right, protested against the emperor's decision to demote Fang Guan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (697-763) as punishment for having suffered a military defeat at the hands of the rebels. For remonstrating this way Du Fu received the death penalty, which he avoided due to a successful appeal on his behalf by Zhang Hao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (d. 764). Fang Guan was demoted, (1) and Du Fu was "granted" a leave of absence. In the autumn of 757, our poet wrote two poems on his visits to two palaces, namely, the Jiucheng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Nine-Tier (2)) and the Yuhua [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Jade Flower), on his long journey to rejoin his family in Fuzhou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (modern Fuxian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Shaanxi).

The present study discusses the sentiments Du Fu might have meant to evoke in the two poems in question. (3) These poems seem to suggest that Du Fu was the first to turn the motif of palace poetry from panegyric to lyric. (4) But what kind of lyric sentiment is expressed in these poems? Were they composed as satire? If so, who or what was the target?

The poetic dichotomy of panegyric and lyric reflects a theoretical distinction between what David McMullen calls the "two bodies" of the Tang sovereigns.(5) "The first 'body' or role," notes McMullen, "was that of the immortal sovereign." This "immortality" was a constant attribute of the emperor in panegyric works on palaces. McMullen's definition of the "second body" of the Tang sovereigns may be seen to suggest a motive behind Du Fu's poems on the two palaces:

  They were individuals; they had their passions, their crises of
  authority; they aged as other men; they feared death. They lived in
  large palace communities that embodied the highest standards of
  luxury; they spent resources, took political decisions, lavished
  patronage on religious figures of their own choice, and had
  favourites ... (6)

Du Fu, as we shall see in the discussion below, transformed poetry on palaces to focus on the carnal instead of the immortal. This switch from the "first body" to the "second body" represented Du Fu's doubts about the sovereign's immortality and the impregnability of the dynastic house.


The two poems that concern us are both in the "ancient" style. Here they are:





Two Tang emperors, Taizong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (r. 626-49) and Gaozong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (r. 649-83), were closely associated with these palaces. The Jiucheng Palace was originally built in the Sui dynasty and called the Renshou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Palace. In the early years of the Tang, it was in danger of being dismantled because of its association with the extravagance of the Sui. After discussions between Taizong and his ministers, however, it was allowed to remain. On his visit to this palace in 632, Taizong is said to have discovered a sweet spring (liquan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) on its grounds, which was interpreted as a propitious sign. Consequently, a commemorative stele was erected at the spot. Wei Zheng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] composed the inscription and Ouyang Xun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] transcribed it onto the stele for engraving. …

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