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Commentary to “Mountain Travel” by Du Mu

Commentary to "Mountain Travel" by Du Mu

Let us look at how medieval Zen monks interpreted classical Chinese poetry by looking at the Santaishi-shō, a commentary on the Santishi edited in the mid-16th century by Shiose Sōwa, an affiliate of the Kenninji temple.

Unfortunately, the copy we are looking at only contains one third of the work. The Ryōsoku-in of the Kenninji temple, however, has the complete manuscript.

The book carries the stamp of the Kenninji priest Eiho Yōyū (1547-1602) and can be dated to the end of the 16th century.

Old Book Fig.1 Santaishi-shō (A Commentary on the Santishi), the beginning of the book
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This is the beginning of the book. There is a jar-like shape with the name Yoyū inside, which is Eiho Yoyū’s owner’s stamp.

Old Book Fig.2 Santaishi-shō (A Commentary on the Santishi), Mountain Travel
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Mountain Travel by Du Mu

Now let us look at the commentary to ‘Mountain Travel,’ a poem by the Tang(#) poet Du Mu (803-852). The text of the poem is as follows:

Original Chinese Japanese translation (Romanized)
遠上寒山石径斜 tōku kanzan ni noboreba sekikei naname nari
白雲生処有人家 hakuun shōzuru tokoro jinka ari
停車坐愛楓林暮 kuruma o todomete sozoro ni aisu fūrin no kure
霜葉紅於二月花 sōyō wa nigatsu no hana yori mo kurenai nari

English Translation

Leading up to the cold mountain, the stony path is steep Up there where the white clouds dwell are some houses Stopping my cart I cannot but admire the maple woods at dusk The frost-covered leaves are a brighter red than the blossoms of the second month(*) [*In the traditional lunar calendar, the second month comes in mid-spring]

After the poem, the Japanese translation (more a paraphrase) is given:

(Lines 1 and 2) As one sets out to climb the remote mountain, the large rocks make travel difficult. It must be a place difficult to reach. People’s houses seem to be among the white clouds. It means that they are at the very top. The central meaning of the poem is to try to make one’s way up the impervious rocky path (the poem is about the effort to climb; we have not made it to the top yet).

(Lines 3 and 4) First, stopping the cart at the foot of the mountain he catches a glimpse of the maple woods. They are even more beautiful than the flowers of spring. ‘Cannot help but’ expresses the unexpectedness of the discovery. My purpose was to climb the mountain, but the beauty of the maple woods has made me stop the cart and appreciate it.

The first part describes the moment that one first sets foot on the mountain path before actually climbing it. The interpreter tries to guess the author’s feelings: As he slowly makes his way on the uneven surface heading for the houses are at the very top, he realizes that it is not going to be easy to get there.

Coming to the second part, stopping the cart along the way the poet looks around and notices the redness of the maple woods covered by the autumn frost. He cannot look away: the flowers of spring are beautiful, but the maple leaves are as beautiful, if not more beautiful.


Next, the text gives three different interpretations of the poem. The first is by Zokusui, the poetic name of Kōsei Ryūha (1375-1446), a poet of the Kenninji. He claims that the poem has a “hidden message” (shitagokoro), the author’s hidden motive for writing it, which is not apparent on first reading it. The hidden message for Ryūha is that the court was peopled by “small people” (shōjin), that is to say, people of low moral standing who thought of nothing but their own personal profit, leaving people like Du Mu no way to do their job. In his interpretation, the “where the white clouds dwell” represents the court, the “mountain” the sovereign, the “frosty leaves” the small-minded courtiers, and the “flowers of the second month” the true Confucian gentlemen who put the good of others first. Although the maple leaves are ephemeral and destined to fall with the first frost, their beauty captures the eye of the sovereign, who fails to see the even greater beauty of the spring blossoms. What seems to be an innocent description of landscape is read as an expression of the author’s discontent with the current political situation.

The second interpretation reads the poem as saying that since at the top of the mountain there are only houses, one might as well stay at the foot and enjoy the sight of the maple leaves down below. No attempt is made to find a “hidden meaning,” but the interpretation of the poet’s feelings can only be described as crude.

The third and final reading is an interpretation by the Song-dynasty poet and scholar Lu Benzhong (1084-1145, courtesy name, Juren), which runs as follows: Du Mu was supposed to marry a young lady, but when they finally were able to meet again, she was already the mother of two children. Her beauty, however, was still far greater than that of much younger women. In this interpretation, the frosty leaves represent the aging woman while the blossoms of the second month symbolize the younger women.

The three interpretations are followed by a comment by the Kenninji monk Kyūen Ryūchin (1398?-1474), who notes that although all three readings are flawed, of the three the first one is the least problematic. He then adds that the poem should be read “simply as a depiction of nature,” that is, a landscape poem expressing in simple terms the beauty of the scenery. In other words, it is unclear whether he sees a hidden message in the poem or not.

After surveying all previous interpretations, Sōwa adds his own. In his opinion, the poem is “nothing but [a record of] a journey to the mountains. There is no other meaning. Kyūen’s interpretation is the same as the first one.” He flatly denies that there is a hidden meaning to the poem.

Though eventually rejected in this particular case, searching for allegorical readings was very common in medieval poetic criticism.

© Keio University
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