Two images of China from Chinese poetry. First, from a famous poem by Du Fu, perhaps the greatest Chinese poet. Writing in the eighth century, Du Fu describes a massive ancient cypress tree, the symbol of the legendary Zhu-Ge Liang but also a symbol of China itself.

Ballad of the Old Cypress

"In front of the temple of Zhu-Ge Liang there's an old cypress. Its branches are like green bronze, its roots like rock. Around its great girth of 40 spans its rimy bark withstands the washing of the rain. Its jet-colored top rises 2,000 feet to greet the sky. Prince and statesman have long since paid their debt to time, but the tree continues to be cherished among men.

This cypress here, though it holds its ground well, clinging with wide, encompassing, snake-like hold, yet, because of its lonely height rising into the gloom of the sky meets much of the wind's fierce blast. Nothing but the power of divine providence could have kept it standing so long. Its straightness must be the work of the Creator, Himself.

If a great hall had collapsed and beams for it were needed, 10,000 oxen might turn their heads inquiringly to look at such a mountain of a load. But it's already marvel enough to astonish the world, without any need to undergo a craftsman's embellishing. It has never refused the ax.

There's simply no one who could carry it away if it were felled. Its bitter heart has not escaped the ants, but there have always been phoenixes roosting in its scented leaves. Men of ambition and you who dwell unseen do not cry out in despair. From of old, the really great has never been found a use for."

That's Du Fu's image of China in David Hawks's translation, alive, rocky, obdurate, massive, ancient. And here's another, different image. In 1989, the pro-democracy demonstrators posted on the wall in Tiananmen Square many poems. Here's a student poem from that era, choosing instead of an image of great strength and stability, the idea of pent-up explosive forces.

Vesuvius Volcano

"Once, twice, countless times I douse my raging flames, once, twice, countless times I swallowed my boiling tears, deep in a nightmarish sleep. I dozed centuries on centuries. Look at the ice in my mouth, the snow on my face, and the thorns on my arms and legs crawling with venomous scorpions. Oh, great earth, you are not a song, nor a psalm.

Look, great earth, my breast heeds, my lips crack with fury, I want with 24 hours of silent eruption. I wait to mourn the deathly silence of a hundred thousand hells.

I want to use my sulfur, my lava, my showers of stones to destroy your coliseum, your temples, your cities, to destroy your sun god, your moon god, your Supreme Being, to destroy everything, everything that you have forced upon me."

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