Rotten Scholar, Confucian (dot?) Hack
April 24, 2024

Every morning, I ride my bike to the subway station, which is at the far end of the street I live on — about a five minute bike ride away.

When I first came to Shanghai, I was startled to see that, unlike Baltimore, almost every street is tree lined. It was autumn then, so leaves were falling. Once winter came I almost forgot the trees were there. Without their leaves, it was easy to imagine to trees as being completely formless. At noon, with the sun directly above us, there was hardly a shadow.

Once leaves started emerging again in spring, the trees’ unnatural verticality became apparent -- the result of decades of careful trimming. Their leaves formed a pale green cathedral-like ceiling, turning those road I’ve biked down so many times into a tunnel. Light pierces through narrow holes in the canopy, illuminating the shadows beneath. Pollen flutters through the air, like one of those 3D visual effects you find in a PS2 JRPG that are completely unnatural, yet leave an impression too real to be written off as fantasy.

During my bike rides, I often imagine this city bombed, turned into rubble. How would the trees react?

Already, in the parts of the city where trees are allowed to grow, the streets they inhabit feel like forests. The shady underpasses below highways, with vines of ivy hanging off of them, are ecosystems in themselves. I can only imagine what it would be like after every building has collapsed and every human has been slaughtered. A green wonderland growing over the lost dreams of mankind.

When going down such lines of thought, one cannot help but think of Du Fu’s most famous poem, View in Spring (春望). It’s a bait-and-switch title that leads one to expect descriptions of blooming flowers and yearly renewal. Instead, the flowers cry as humanity burns away:



View in Spring

The state broken, its mountains and rivers remain,
     the city turns spring, deep with plants and trees.
Stirred by the time, flowers, sprinkling tears,
     hating parting, birds, alarm the heart.
Beacon fires stretch through three months,
     a letter from family worth ten thousand in silver.
I’ve scratched my white hair even shorter,
     pretty much to the point where it won’t hold a hatpin.

(This and all other Du Fu translations quoted here were done by Stephen Owen in his book The Poetry of Du Fu, which can be downloaded for free from the publisher’s website. I’ve inserted indentations in all these poems to make the couplets more clear. The fundamental unit of Tang Shi poetry is really the couplet, not the line — parallelism is used everywhere — which is why in Chinese couplets are often printed as a single line with a comma between them, how I’ve presented the poems here.)

This was written towards the beginning of the An Lushan rebellion, after the capital Chang’an had fallen to the rebels. Initially Du Fu was away from the capital with his family in Fengxian, so he didn’t witness the actual battle. In The High Studio of Old Cui (19), Assistant Magistrate of Whitewater County: Thirty Couplets (白水縣崔少府十九翁高齋三十韻), which starts out as an idyllic description of spending time in nature outside of the estate of his older relative Assistant Magistrate Cui, Du Fu then turns to describing the coming of rebel forces, as though war emits a certain mist, just off the horizon, visible to any who look:


At the front balcony, evening’s sunshine sinks down,
     and towering to the utmost, Mount Hua turns red.
War’s atmosphere floods forests and ridges,
     the river glints mixes with blade-tip and arrowhead.

He sent his family north to a small town called Fuzhou (鄜州, not to be confused with modern city Fuzhou (福州) in southern China), where presumably they would be safe. Du Fu then tried to make his way to Lingwu, where Li Heng, son of emperor Xuanzong, soon to become emperor himself, had stationed the imperial army. As these things go, the rebel army captured Du Fu and brought him to Chang’an, where he was released (for some reason). This period of freedom in an occupied city, little to no contact possible with his friends and family outside, is the context under which he wrote View in Spring, as well as another poem I like:



Facing the Snow

Weeping over battle, many fresh ghosts,
     reciting in sorrow, one old man alone.
Tumultuous clouds lower toward twilight,
     urgent snow dances in whirling winds.
Ladle tossed aside, no green in the cup,
     the brazier remains, there seems the red of fire.
News has been cut off from several prefectures,
     I sit in sorrow, just now writing words in air.

I first started getting into Du Fu the summer of 2022. I had taken a series of busses across the the North American continent over several days, finally getting to know this land that I was about to leave. So much of Du Fu’s poetry is about travels through beautiful landscapes, yet harboring an all-too-distinct awareness of some sinister veil expanding over the land. During my own travels, I didn’t really have a reason to feel anything was wrong with the world, other than all the usual reasons anyone with a Twitter account is inundated with on a daily basis. Yet I felt sad the whole time. Maybe it was because I was leaving soon. Maybe I was thinking too much about the political conflicts between the United States and China. Maybe I just felt lonely, gradually realizing I don’t really have a home anywhere.

Strangers stepped onto the bus with me, then stepped off. I gazed at my new surroundings in city after city. New strangers got on the next bus with me. I didn’t talk to any of them, but I overheard some of their conversations. A bearded man, probably the same age as me, trying to speak German he learned in college with a Mennonite couple, an old man hooked up to an oxygen tank, still wearing his hospital gown, a discharged solder with a massive green sack on his way back home in Pennsylvania, a middle-aged man whose daughter in Idaho had just disowned him.

Du Fu — you haunt even me.

I’ve read your poems, and still I don’t know who you are. I can’t imagine you clearly, yet I continue imagining you nonetheless, remembering you as though we met once, perhaps in a dream.

Compared to the other famous Chinese personages I encountered in my youth, Du Fu always felt more ghostly and ethereal. As David Hawkes has put it, Du Fu doesn’t come through very well in translation. My first encounter with him was in the words of Li Bai, who wrote the following poem to him (one of three addressing Du Fu, compared to the many many poems Du Fu wrote for Li Bai):



Addressed Humorously to Tu Fu

Here! is this you on the top of Fan-kuo Mountain,
     Wearing a huge hat in the noon-day sun?
How thin, how wretchedly thin, you have grown!
     You must have been suffering from poetry again.

(Translation by Shigeyoshi Obata, done much more loosely than Owen’s translations of Du Fu, though perhaps this fits Li Bai’s style.)

Li Bai, his whole life constructing a mythology of himself, is quite vivid in my mind. He’s standing in the moonlight, by the waters or beneath the peach-blossoms. Always ravaged by wine, he’s too filled with imagination ever to feel lonely. A kind of shapeshifter, in one moment he’s speaking as a noblewoman whose stockings are wet with dew, and in another the madman of Chu, sneering at Confucius.

Confucius too I have my fair share of sympathy towards. As a teenager I’d read The Analects, which already had their evocative moments. Like when Ji Lu asks about the afterlife, and Confucius replies “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?”, which made teenage me think of that Modest Mouse song. Ezra Pound’s Canto XIII, quoting freely from The Analects, only made Confucius feel more like a person to me, turning imaginations of ancient China into English-language poetry:

And Kung said "Wang ruled with moderation,
     "In his day the State was well kept,
"And even I can remember
"A day when the historians left blanks in their writings,
"I mean, for things they didn't know,
"But that time seems to be passing.”

Just as this American-in-Europe translator-poet dreamed of China, Confucius dreamed of some other mystical past — if only we could bring it back.

I’ve read the original Chinese of all the poems Ezra Pound translated. I’ve spent hours flipping back and forth between pages of dictionaries to somehow connect with these voices hidden behind deceptively massive walls of language. Yet, to my great shame, I still can’t find the instinctual word by word beauty in them that comes through to me effortlessly in Ezra Pound’s (one might say distorted) English. I’m sure no one who speaks Chinese natively would find Pound’s Cathay more beautiful than Li Bai or Canto XIII more poetic than The Analects — I am painfully aware of how inadequate these translations and adaptions are — yet there is something about one’s mother-tongue that is inescapable. I’ve crossed a continent and an ocean, yet English is still here, inside of me, taunting me. It carries me back to memories I wish I could forget.

Of all the old Chinese men from distant ages with whom literature has offered me a chance at friendship, the one I pretend I know most intimately is Mao Zonggang (or his father Mao Lun — somehow their identities mix together, complicating said intimacy I just claimed). He (I’ll stick to the singular) accompanied me through the many months it took me to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The edition I read had translated nearly a hundred pages of his commentary. “How hard to grasp,” he would say, “these mysterious transformations events bring.” He was one of the major forces in putting novels on the same ground as poetry — works worth spilling gallons of ink over.

Mao Zonggang made me love commentaries. They could be literature in their own right. He made me want to learn classical Chinese, not for the original works, many of which can be read in excellent English translations, but for all the commentaries that will never be translated. (I still have yet to really fulfill that dream -- Classical Chinese is too hard! Still, thank you Moss Roberts for your translation.) I imagined a scholarly bookworm, engaging in reveries of imagination about ancient heroes:

“The Zhang Fei of this day is not the Zhang Fei who lost Xuzhou through drunkenness. They are virtually two different men. But the Zhang Fei who outwitted Zhang He is the Zhang Fei who outwitted Yan Yan. When he outwitted Yan Yan, there were two Zhang Feis [a real and a false one], one behind the woods, one in front. When he outwitted Zhang He, there were again two Zhang Feis . . . almost as if, like Zuo Ci, he could materialize outside of himself. Is this his transcendence in wine?”

More than the book’s plot, which has blurred into a haze for me, what I remember is Mao. Many years later, living another life in another world, I continue to whisper to myself Mao’s words: "How hard to grasp — these mysterious transformations events bring.”

All these personages of Chinese literature exist in my mind, so clearly, even if they’re only fantasies. Yet Du Fu, despite the intense autobiographicism of his poetry, and the magic he finds in a world that was all so real to him, continues to feel like an invisible phantom to me.

Invisible, yet haunting me all the same.

When I got back to Baltimore after my trip across the continent and back, in the weeks before I left for Seoul, then Guangzhou, then finally Shanghai, I didn’t really have any obligations. I spent all day walking or taking jogs, passing boarded up houses on treeless streets, old stone churches, guys smoking weed with lizards perched on their shoulders, or the dried up lake, filled with heavy machinery, at the top of druid hill, looking down on the cloudy city below. Visions of Du Fu would flash before my eyes without my permission. Somehow, I saw the horrors he’d seen, I saw the landscapes he’d walked through — but never his face. I was like Du Fu himself, though emotionally inverted, in his poem Northern Journey (北征), which chronicle the war-torn landscape he traversed, after having escaped from Chang’an and eventually being given permission by the emperor (now Li Heng, with the imperial title Suzong) to return to his family, still hiding in Fuzhou. For a moment, somewhere in nature, he became lost in thoughts of Tao Yuanming:


Mountain berries in many tiny bits
     grew in stretches mixed with chestnut oaks.
Some were red like cinnabar pebbles,
     others, black like spots of lacquer.
Wherever the rain and dew brings moisture
     fruits form, the sweet and the bitter alike.
I thought of Peach Blossom Spring, so remote,
     increasing sighs over the blunders of my life.

When I read Du Fu’s poetry, it is an exhaustive account of a reality that happens to border into dream worlds — not illusions or fantasies, but reflections of a world realer than real. Du Fu’s poems are too real — they demand a careful reading, more careful than I’m capable of.

I am, unfortunately, a creature who, when reading a poem, can only think of video games. Finding myself trapped in the 21st century, staring into television screens at digital worlds, the experiences within are, for better or worse, a part of my reality. The reality outside my window has a distance to it that feels virtual.

The game Du Fu reminds me of is .Hack of all things: A single-player simulation of a non-existent MMORPG, a central hub world connected by “chaos gate” to a multitude of other worlds (called “fields”), a domestic reality at the center of a hierarchy of dreams. Du Fu’s poetry is filled with references to travels, finding oneself trapped at the edge of the world, dreaming of others. .Hack, on the other hand, suggests a sort of mystical ecosystem behind its chaos gate. .Hack’s fields are landscapes — “spaces in-between”, as opposed to “places” or “destinations”. In 2D JRPGs, such in-betweens are abstracted into tiles on a world map. In most of the 3D JRPGs I’ve played, they’re often done away with altogether, with only the “destinations” remaining — or if it’s a modern open world game, the in-betweens are so small as to be barely appreciable. Within .Hack’s fields, like in Du Fu’s travel poetry, one occasionally encounters fellow travelers — always a massive surprise. These distant dream worlds exist in some larger universe racked by a war one never really witnesses, always lagging behind it somehow, seeing only the trail of carnage.

I think these parallels, as tenuous as they are — as well as the barriers presented by Du Fu’s compact language and usage of unfamiliar Chinese characters — make it easy for me to map these poems to whatever area my subconscious originally allocated to store all those feelings .Hack first evoked in me.

I’d first played .Hack as a 10-year-old, when my brother’s friend let me borrow it for a few weeks one summer. As with all games I played back then, I didn’t make much progress. At the end of summer, I had to give it back to him. What felt like an eternity later, I bought a used copy of it when I was 16, during that all too brief period when pretty much every PS2 game could be obtained for under five dollars at Gamestop. The eternal sunset I encountered in Mac Anu, the “root town” of the Delta server that you start the game in, prompted me to write poems about it in the style I’d encountered in Pound’s Cathay or Shigeyoshi Obata’s translations of Li Bai (The blog linked is what introduced me to Pound and Chinese poetry. It’s quite fascinating now to read the block quotes of Pound’s vague imaginations of how the Chinese language worked, years after I’ve actually learned Chinese). Something inspired me to start posting my poems on the Craigslist “discussion forums” of all places — but there wasn’t a general poetry board, only a haiku board. So I wrote haiku about the imagined worlds in .Hack.

It probably seems silly to imagine an anime JRPG inspiring me to write poetry — but if you’re actually familiar with the game, I don’t think you’d find it all that surprising. It’s a game about turning words into digital dream worlds. You select the “field” you want to go to by linking together keywords into names like “Putrid Corrupted White Devil” or “Hidden Forbidden Holy Ground” — little poems in and of themselves. Rather than the “Medicinal Herbs” of Dragon Quest (already a much more evocative name than “potion”), you pick up items like “Aromatic grass”. The pig-like Grunties you keep as pets in the Theta server eat foods with names like “Twilight Onion” and “Cordyceps”. Half of the game is reading emails and forums posts, scanning for hints that will manifest in more concrete realities somewhere in those overlapping virtual worlds.

This isn’t an isekai. Your character isn’t trapped inside of the game. When you turn your PS2 off, so does he. It’s implied that, off screen, he’s going to school each day and living a normal life. His visual and tactile experience, reading his emails and playing this game, are no more heightened than those of you the player. This a game literally about observing someone else play a game, art meditating on the appreciation of art. However real or fake this digital world is for you, so it is for the game’s characters.

By the time I started using the internet, phpBB had dominated the world of forums. The “boards” in .Hack were instead based on a much earlier conception of internet forums, which I initially mistook for a game designer’s fantasy. This might be why I took to Craigslist forums so quickly — they too came from that earlier internet and as such were extremely .Hack like. For instance each individual post got its own title — a feature posters often put to great creative use.

Whenever I posted my poems, strangers gave me lots of downvotes and told me that I wasn’t writing haiku correctly. Sometimes different strangers appeared to defend me. I’d search those strangers’ names and find the old haikus they’d written. The joy of each of these haiku was that they could be about anything. Every time I clicked on a title, I had no idea what to expect. One person’s haiku would inspire another’s.

Poetry became conversation — just like the ancients.

It was nice.

Despite all this, and despite what I said about .Hack and Du Fu occupying a similar brain space for me, I don’t think the virtual sunsets and grassy plains inside of .Hack could ever inspire someone to write poetry with any of the qualities that make Du Fu what he is. Even if the destruction and wonder Du Fu describes has a certain illusory quality to it, it is composed directly from reality. Du Fu merely remembers Peach Blossom Spring, this other person’s fantasies, rather than trying to describe them himself.

In some sense, I come from a world of prose. The writing I’ve been raised on and trained to regard as “normal” is a naturalistic style firmly based on everyday speech. When something interesting happens to me, my first instinct is to write either an essay or short story about — never a poem.

Yet, as I go through my memories, some of the deepest and bloodiest puncture wounds to my subconscious came not from prose, but from poetry — poems I often read at an early age completely out of context.

So much of the literature and art that made me what I am continues to be mysterious to me.

Of the carefully crafted dream worlds I’ve encountered in Du Fu’s poetry, my favorite is Yangzi and Han (江漢), written towards the end of his life, after the war had ended:


At Yangzi and Han, a traveler longing to go home,
     between Earth and Heaven, one Confucian hack.
A puff of cloud, Heaven shares such distance;
     the long night, moon the same in solitude.
In the setting sun, the heart still vigorous,
     in autumn wind, sickness almost cured.
From ancient days, when taking care of old horses,
     one has not made them take to the long road.

As is often the case with 8 line regulated verse, the English translation is kind of confusing (not that I can do any better).

For me, this poem’s weight comes from the parallelism (one of the defining features of regulated verse) in the first couplet. We have a “returning traveller” (歸客) and a “rotten scholar” (腐儒). When I first read this, I’d already read The Scholars, whose Chinese name is 儒林外史, that is “Outer History of the Forest of Scholars”, written a thousand years after Du Fu’s poem, telling the tales of weirdos and idealists, men whose minds have been poisoned by studying too much. When I encounter that character 儒, which I instinctually translate as “scholar” and Owen translated as “Confucian”, and when there is the character 腐 placed in front of it, for a brief moment I do feel some intimate connection to Du Fu. This is how I imagined myself, sitting in a bus depot at the edge of Sioux Falls, listening to the conversations of fellow travelers, yet totally alone — a rotten scholar, a Confucian hack, lost in the wilderness.

Yet this connection lasts only for a moment. As before, I cannot see Du Fu’s face, only that bamboo hat Li Bai described.

An image of a scholar, viewed from above, trapped alone in a massive wild world, like a snow globe. It is autumn, the time of decay. The sun is setting and the wind is rustling, he is on old and sickly. Yet Du Fu, a man of opposites, feels invigorated. Somehow he will rise again and escape this exile. A horse that can’t go far, but knows exactly the road it must take.

Reading these words, I imagine this old man, and all the other old men whose friendship I’ve encountered in books, coming back to life in a single moment to take their revenge on me. Du Fu will be the first to sink his teeth into my jugular! That is the dream that makes his heart feel so vigorous. I’ve stared at him so long, yet I still don’t know him. His words have entered my brain, and I’ve defiled them! I’ve treated them as raw material for the expression of my own perverted imaginations. Even when reading his poems as he wrote them, I instinctually convert them into a language of another — tainting every carefully chosen Chinese character with the English I can’t get out of my soul.

And for that, I must perish.