Arts critic's notebook

Autumn thoughts

Watching the leaves swirl around me, I imagine another autumn, more than a thousand years ago

It’s autumn again in Cambridge. Yellow leaves flutter to the ground as the crisp breeze tickles my face. The scent of apple cider wafts through the halls, and the Charles River sparkles mesmerizingly under the warm gaze of the sun, signaling the arrival of my favorite season. As I stroll down Memorial Drive, I can’t help but think of another individual who, more than a millennium ago, was similarly struck by the beauty of autumn.

Born in 803, Du Mu (803–852) was a late Tang dynasty (618–907) poet whose poems arose above the poverty of the times. Ancient China reached its territorial and cultural peak during the Tang dynasty. Under the reign of Emperor Gaozong (628–683), the empire stretched from the deserts of modern-day Kazakhstan to the rice terraces of Vietnam. The capital, Chang’an, housed over 1 million inhabitants and was the most cosmopolitan city in the world at the time. In comparison, the population of Rome at the time was less than 200,000. Arab merchants sold cinnamon and nutmeg, Persian dancers flitted through brothels and palaces, and various emissaries entered the city gates in awe of the sights, sounds, and tastes of the city. However, the An Lushan rebellion (755–763), instigated by a rogue general, disrupted this period of prosperity and marked the steady decline of the Tang. 

Du Mu was considered one of the leading poets of his generation and one of the last great poets of the Tang. Though he came from an aristocratic family, his family fortune had declined by the time of his birth. Du Mu never secured a high ranking office and spent most of his years drifting between remote regions of the empire in a series of lowly bureaucratic positions. As a result, we remember his legacy not through his politics but his poetry. In the Tang dynasty, writing poetry was a prerequisite to participating in elite society. Educated men and women wrote poems to commemorate a visit from a friend, to reply to an official order, or to just remember a fleeting moment. Thus, Du Mu and his contemporaries produced thousands of poems in their lifetimes. Today, millions still recite Du Mu’s quatrains, usually centered on romance and themes of separation, longing, and impermanence. 

The fall foliage of Boston reminds me of one of Du Mu’s most famous poems, Mountain Travels*:

The stone path twists up the cold mountain.

From beneath the white clouds arises some homes.

I stop my cart to admire the maples in the dusk,

The leaves, dyed by the frost, are a richer red than spring flowers.

From the first two lines, we see Du Mu standing at the foot of the mountain, contemplating the long journey ahead. The top of the mountain is obscured by the clouds, making it unclear as to exactly how far he has left to travel. The clouds offer a sense of mystery — what lies behind them? How far does the path stretch? Du Mu cannot tell.

We can imagine this picturesque scene — a slight stone path winding up a domineering mountain and disappearing into the clouds. The poet is on a journey, bemoaning the road ahead. However, in the next line, Du Mu suddenly forgets his pressing travels. He stops to admire (in the original Chinese, the word is 爱 ai, or love) the maple forest around him. In the opening lines, the poet describes the impressive scenery around him, but he only stops to cherish the foliage. 

In the last line, Du Mu explains why he is enamored by the maples: the red of their leaves reminds him of spring flowers. In fact, the leaves are more beautiful than the colors of spring. With this, our picture is complete. Du Mu embeds himself in this snapshot of an autumn night. If I close my eyes, I can picture a cart at the foot of a red, maple-studded mountain at dusk, and a single figure gazing up stone steps towards the clouds.

Literati throughout the ages have interpreted “Mountain Travels” as a metaphor for Du Mu’s winding path to becoming a prominent public official. Others argue Du Mu was expressing how the middle years (autumn) are more rewarding than youth (spring).

Whatever the intentions behind Mountain Travels, we cannot deny that Du Mu greatly enjoyed the autumn view before him. In the context of MIT, perhaps, the mountainous path could be the semester ahead of us, laden with psets and midterms. The clouds obscure where this sea of work ends. Instead of thinking about the daunting prospects ahead though, we should look around us and enjoy the beauty of the moment — the late nights with friends, the liveliness of Kresge, and of course, the yellow, red leaves of autumn dancing around us.  

*All translations are the author’s own.