I’m not very much of a tourist.
Drop me off in any Chinese city and my first order of business is where to find a 50-meter swimming pool. Years of competitive swimming are not about to be drowned out of me by Beijing’s Forbidden City, Nanjing’s Ming Tombs or Hangzhou’s West Lake.
But I must admit that Chengdu has places to offer that come very close to tempting me away from a cool water work-out. One of these is Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage, a preservation park dedicated to the Chengdu life of an infamous Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu.
Last Saturday, I was very privileged to wander our famous poet’s pathways along with Art Silverman. Art is an NPR (National Public Radio) producer now on vacation after completing his stint with colleagues for NPR’s The Chengdu Diaries. After following the stories of the group on their website, I contacted Art to see if anyone was interested in doing something in the area aside from earthquake coverage. Since Art was free, he took me up on the offer with my recommendation being a visit to Du Fu Cao Tang (Du Fu’s Thatched Roof Cottage).
In 759, Du Fu (712-770) moved with his family to Chengdu from Gansu province in order to escape the Lushan Rebellion. They traveled through the dense, rugged forests of Sichuan to finally alight in the western suburbs of Chengdu. Here, Du Fu set up a thatched cottage near Flower Washing Brook, where he and his family lived for almost 3 years.
During this time, Du Fu composed over 240 poems about his cottage life in this place far from home. Although Du Fu’s current thatched cottage is a replica, the nearly exact location is known due to his meticulous references to this home: “To the west of the Ten Thousand Li Bridge,/ To the north of the Hundred Flower Pond,/ Lies my thatched cottage.” (Du Fu, Fond Memories of Living by the Brocade River).
The poet’s careful descriptions also helped park planners recreate the quiet, natural surroundings that Du Fu himself must have experienced during his life here.
A fence of woven bamboo winding
Along the river bank;
A picket gate set askew
Yet true to the bending stream;
Fishermen setting their nets
In clear waters;
Cargo boats sliding quietly
Behind the rays of the setting sun.
–Du Fu, Old Man in the Country
When I arrived at 4 p.m., Art was already inside the park, having entered from the “back door,” so to speak, which is the south entrance. Most of us enter via the main north gate so I hustled through to meet up with him inside.
Admission fee is 60 yuan ($8.60), which includes a souvenir postcard and a small folded map (bilingual) to navigate you around the park. Winter hours are 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., summer hours 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. For 50 yuan ($7.15), you can even hire your own English-speaking guide for a private tour. Although I have always preferred to wander the small park by myself, if you are truly into Chinese history and poets, I suggest you go for the tour. In other Chinese tourist areas, I have found that the English speaking guides are very well-informed about their subject, can answer difficult questions and truly give you good insight into what you are seeing. I’m sure your 50 yuan at Du Fu’s Cottage would be well-spent.
Art and I greeted one another near the south gate, in front of the Ten-thousand Buddha Tower (or pagoda). This is a fairly new addition, about 3 years old, and offers a great view of the entire grounds. Unfortunately, due to the earthquake, we weren’t able to climb to the fourth tier to see it.
My great love of this place has largely to do with the fact that it is so quiet, peaceful and beautiful. Tall bamboo groves dip downward, shading visitors from the hot sun as they slowly walk along the many paved pathways. Sitting areas nestle in forested niches. Fish-filled ponds and trickling brooks, crossed by wooden bridges, dot the landscape. Small temples, winding verandas, pavilions and tea-sipping areas all help to create a picturesque scene of Du Fu’s China. Even the exhibition halls are designed to blend into the park’s Tang Dynasty poetic atmosphere.
Of course, the highlight of the park is the cottage itself, rebuilt in 1997. It rests on well-swept grounds, enclosed by a woven bamboo fence. The thatched roof is thick, and the outside walls are faced with clay. Wooden beams inside and out create the strong support needed to keep safe the rooms inside.
Every time I approach this infamous spot, I feel as if I am an expected guest. In the cool, mystical shade of the surrounding trees, it is as if Du Fu himself is ready to step out onto the raised stone porch to greet me.
Entering the open doorway and peering into the rooms of his home gives one the feeling that a poet is present, if not physically then spiritually. I imagine Du Fu sitting at his desk in his small study. His calm surroundings embrace him, his feelings of this cottage life now moved into words:
My home in the suburbs,
Commanding a fine view
Unobstructed by any village
So that I can see
Far into the distance
With but a quiet stream beside
Low banks, and a view of a tree
In blossom at sunset; able to watch
Small fish rise in the rain
And swallows that clip the breeze
As they fly. In the city,
A hundred thousand households;
Here, but two or three.
— Du Fu, Leaning Over the Railing I Free My Heart
If I were ever a poet in need of inspiration, this is certainly the place I’d come to.
In my opinion, the only eyesore of this great historical place is a 2004 addition of an archaeological dig site open to the public. A low-lying metal building houses a completed dig of the village which Du Fu often visited. Inside, you can gaze down upon the remnants of wells, walkways, house walls and stone entranceways. It’s not exactly a favorite stop for visitors but it does hold some interest if you’re really into Tang Dynasty village life, which I’m not.
Art and I finished our pleasant stroll through the park in just under two hours, although if you wanted to make it an all-day respite from the crowded, noisy outside city, you could easily do so.
Of all the places in Chengdu, Du Fu’s Thatched Roof Cottage is my favorite. There is a feeling of sanctuary here which quiets the soul and allows busy minds to rest. Perhaps this is one reason why I chose it. The NPR coverage of the Sichuan earthquake I’m sure had a very strong emotional and physical impact on all who worked so tirelessly to bring listeners the stories of people so greatly affected by this horrific event. And while I would have loved to have the entire staff with us to enjoy Du Fu’s healing serenity, I at least managed to get one of them.
From Chengdu, wishing you all “Ping An!” (Peace)
Note: I am by no means a Du Fu expert nor a scholar of Chinese poetry. All information and translation of poems came from a great hard-cover English guide book sold at the cottage. Best $8 I ever spent!
REMINDER FOR AID IN BUYING TENTS, VACCINES, AND OTHER SUPPLIES FOR EARTHQUAKE RELIEF EFFORTS
United Methodists: UMCOR Advance #982450, International Disaster Response, China Earthquake