Du Fu


Du Fu (Wade-Giles, Tu Fu), also known as Dù Shàolíng (杜少陵) or Dù Gōngbù (杜工部), (712-770), was a prominent Chinese poet during the Tang dynasty era. His courtesy name was Zǐ Měi (子美).

A contemporary and friend of Li Bai, his poetry was, however, more political and social in nature than Li Bai”s. Although he failed the imperial exams on one occasion, he went on to become a state official, working at the court of the Tang Suzong emperor. Although he failed the imperial exams on one occasion, he went on to become a state official, working at the court of the Tang Suzong emperor.

His life went through many vicissitudes, the main one being the An Lushan rebellion of 755, which destabilized the whole country and forced Du Fu to abandon, together with the Tang court, the capital Chang”an. He would spend the rest of his life in very precarious conditions.

Due to the originality of his work, he did not achieve great recognition during his lifetime. However, his prestige and fame would not cease to grow after his death, becoming one of the greatest writers in Chinese history, whose influence has been felt in later generations of poets in both China and Japan. In the West, some of his most important translators have been Marcela de Juan or Kenneth Rexroth (into English).

Traditional Chinese literary criticism emphasizes the author”s life when interpreting a work, a practice that American scholar Burton Watson attributes to “the close links that traditional Chinese thought posits between art and morality.” Given that many of Du Fu”s poems present morality and history, this practice is particularly important. Another reason, identified by Chinese historian William Hung, is that Chinese poems are typically concise, omitting context that might be relevant, but which an informed contemporary might be assumed to know. For modern Western readers, “the less we know about the time, place, and circumstances of the background, the more prone we are to imagine it incorrectly, and the result will be that we misunderstand the poem or fail to understand it fully.” Stephen Owen suggests a third factor particular to Du Fu, arguing that the variety of the poet”s work required consideration of his entire life, rather than the “reductive” categorizations used for more limited poets.

First years

Most of what is known of Du Fu”s life comes from his poems. His paternal grandfather was Du Shenyan, a prominent politician and poet during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian (the exact place of birth is unknown, except that it was near Luoyang, Henan province (Gong County is a favorite candidate). Later, it was considered to belong to the capital city of Chang”an, ancestral hometown of the Du family.

Du Fu”s mother died shortly after his birth, and he was partially raised by his aunt. He had an older brother, who died young. He also had three half-brothers and a half-sister, to whom he frequently refers in his poems, although he never mentions his stepmother.

The son of a minor academic official, his youth was spent in the standard education of a future civil servant: study and memorization of the Confucian classics of philosophy, history, and poetry. He later claimed to have produced creditable poems in his teens, but these have been lost.

In the early 730s, he traveled through the Jiangsu area

His father died around 740. Du Fu would have been allowed to enter the civil service because of his father”s rank, but it is believed that he waived the privilege in favor of one of his half-brothers. He spent the next four years living in the Luoyang area, fulfilling his duties in domestic affairs.

In the autumn of 744, he met Li Bai (Li Po) for the first time and the two poets struck up a great friendship. David Young describes this as “the most significant formative element in Du Fu”s artistic development” because it gave him a vivid example of the solitary life of a poet and scholar to which he was drawn after his failure in the civil service examination. However, the relationship was somewhat one-sided. Du Fu was a few years younger, while Li Bai was already a poetic star. We have twelve poems about Li Bai from the younger poet, but only one in the other direction. They met again only once, in 745.

In 746, he moved to the capital in an attempt to resurrect his official career. He took the civil service examination a second time during the following year, but all candidates were failed by the prime minister (apparently to avoid the appearance of potential rivals). He never again attempted to pass the exams, but petitioned the emperor directly in 751, 754, and probably again in 755. He married around 752, and by 757 the couple had had five children, three sons and two daughters, but one of the sons died in infancy in 755. From 754 onward he began to have lung problems (probably asthma), the first of a series of ailments that dogged him for the rest of his life. It was in that year that Du Fu was forced to relocate his family due to a famine caused by massive flooding in the region.

In 755, he received an appointment as Registrar of the office of the Commander of Justice of the Crown Prince”s Palace. Although this was a minor post, in normal times it would have been at least the start of an official career. However, even before he began work, the position was swept away by events.

Period of the war

The An Lushan rebellion began in December 755 and was not fully suppressed for nearly eight years. It caused enormous disruption in Chinese society: the 754 census recorded 52.9 million people, but ten years later, the census counted only 16.9 million, and the rest were displaced or killed. During this time, Du Fu led a largely itinerant life disrupted by wars, associated famines, and imperial discontent. This period of unhappiness spawned Du Fu”s creation as a poet: Eva Shan Chou has written that “What he saw around him, the lives of his family, neighbors and strangers, what he heard and what he hoped or feared. from the progress of various campaigns, became the enduring themes of his poetry.” Even when he learned of the death of his youngest son, he drew on the suffering of others in his poetry rather than dwelling on his own misfortunes. Du Fu wrote:

“Reflecting on what I have lived through, if even I know such suffering, the common man must surely be shaken by the winds.”

In 756, Emperor Xuanzong was forced to flee the capital and abdicate. Du Fu, who had been out of the city, took his family to safety and attempted to join the court of the new emperor (Suzong), but was captured by rebels and taken to Chang”an. In the autumn his youngest son, Du Zongwu, was born. Around this time Du Fu is believed to have contracted malaria.

He escaped from Chang”an the following year and was appointed receiver when he rejoined the court in May 757. This post which gave access to the emperor but was largely ceremonial. Du Fu”s scrupulousness forced him to try to make use of it: he caused trouble by protesting the dismissal of his friend and patron Fang Guan on a petty charge. He was arrested but pardoned in June . He was granted leave to visit his family in September, but soon rejoined the court and on 8 December 757 returned to Chang”an with the emperor after his recapture by government forces. However, his advice remained unappreciated, and in the summer of 758 he was demoted to a post of Commissioner of Education in Huazhou. The position was not to his liking: in a poem, he wrote:

“I”m about to scream madly in the office.

Especially when they bring more papers to stack higher on my desk.”

from “Early autumn, miserable heat, stacked papers”.

He moved in the summer of 759; this has traditionally been attributed to famine, but Hung believes frustration is a more likely reason. He then spent about six weeks in Qinzhou (now Tianshui, Gansu province), where he wrote more than sixty poems.

Chengdu period

In December 759, he stayed briefly in Tonggu (modern Gansu). He left on December 24 for Chengdu (Sichuan province), where he was received by the local prefect and fellow poet Pei Di. Du subsequently settled in Sichuan for most of the next five years. By the autumn of that year he was in financial trouble and sent poems asking for help to various acquaintances. He was relieved by Yan Wu, a friend and former colleague who was appointed governor general in Chengdu. Despite his financial problems, this was one of the happiest and most peaceful periods of his life. Many of Du”s poems from this period are peaceful depictions of his life in his thatched hut. In 762, he left the city to escape a rebellion, but returned in the summer of 764 when he was appointed advisor to Yan, who participated in the campaigns against the Tibetan Empire.

Last years

Luoyang, the region of his birthplace, was recaptured by government forces in the winter of 762, and in the spring of 765 Du Fu and his family sailed up the Yangtze, apparently intending to get there. They traveled slowly, held back by his poor health (at the time he was suffering from poor eyesight, deafness, and general old age in addition to his previous ailments). They stayed in Kuizhou (in what is now Baidicheng, Chongqing) at the entrance to the Three Gorges for nearly two years from late spring 766. This period was Du Fu”s last great poetic flowering, and here he wrote 400 poems in his dense, late style. In the autumn of 766, Bo Maolin became governor of the region: he supported Du Fu financially and hired him as his unofficial secretary.

In March 768, he resumed his journey and reached Hunan province, where he died in Tanzhou (now Changsha) in November or December 770, aged 58. He was survived by his wife and two sons, who remained in the area for at least a few years. His last known descendant is a grandson who requested an inscription for the poet from Yuan Zhen in 813.

Hung summarizes his life by concluding that, “He seemed to be a filial son, an affectionate father, a generous brother, a faithful husband, a loyal friend, a dutiful official and a patriotic subject.”

Below is an example from one of Du Fu”s later works, To My Friend Wei (贈 衛 八 處 士). Like many other Tang poems, it featured the theme of a long separation between friends, which was often due to officials being frequently transferred to the provinces.

人生 不 相見 , It”s almost as hard for friends to find each other.

動 如 參與 商。 Like Orion and Scorpio.

今夕 復 何 夕 , Tonight is a rare event,

共 此 燈 燭光。 Joining together, by candlelight,

少壯 能 幾時 , Two men who were young not so long ago.

鬢髮 各 已 蒼。 But which are now turning gray at the temples.

訪 舊 半 為 鬼 , To find that half of our friends are dead.

驚呼 熱中 腸。 It surprises us, sears our hearts with pain.

焉知 二十 載 , Little did we know that twenty years would pass.

重 上 君子 堂。 Before I could visit you again.

昔 別 君 未婚 , When I left, I was not yet married;

兒女 忽 成行。 But now these guys and gals in a row.

怡然 敬 父 執 , They are very kind to their father”s old friend.

問 我 來 何方。 They ask me where I have been on my journey;

問答 乃 未 已 , And then, when we have talked for a while,

兒女 羅 酒 漿。 They bring and show me wines and dishes,

夜雨 翦 春 韭 , Spring onions cut under the night rain.

新 炊 間 黃 粱。 And freshly cooked brown rice in a special way.

主 稱 會面 難 , My host proclaims the feast,

一舉 累 十 觴。 He urges me to drink ten cups-.

十 觴 亦不 醉 , But what ten cups could get me drunk?

感 子 故意 長。 How am I always with your friendship in my heart?

明日 隔 山嶽 , Tomorrow the mountains will separate us;

世事 兩 茫茫。 The day after tomorrow, who can tell?

Criticism of Du Fu”s works has focused on his strong sense of history, moral commitment and technical excellence.


Since the Song dynasty, critics have called Du Fu the “holy poet” (詩聖, shī shèng). The most directly historical of his poems are those commenting on military tactics or the successes and failures of the government, or the advice poems he wrote for the emperor. Indirectly, he wrote about the effect of the times in which he lived on himself and on the common people of China. As Watson observes, this is information “of a kind rarely found in officially compiled histories of the period.”

Du Fu”s political commentaries are based on emotion rather than calculation: his prescriptions have been paraphrased as, “Let us all be less selfish, let us all do what we are supposed to do.” Since it was impossible to disagree with his views, his forcefully expressed truisms allowed his installation as the central figure in Chinese poetic history.

Moral commitment

A second favorite epithet of Chinese critics is that of “wise poet” (詩聖, shī shèng), a counterpart of the wise philosopher Confucius. One of the earliest surviving works, The Song of the Chariots (from around 750), gives voice to the sufferings of a conscript soldier in the imperial army and a clear awareness of suffering. These concerns are continually articulated in poems about the lives of soldiers and civilians produced by Du Fu throughout his life.

Although Du Fu”s frequent references to his own difficulties may give the impression of an all-consuming solipsism, Hawkes argues that his “famous compassion in fact includes himself, viewed quite objectively and almost as an afterthought.” He therefore “lends grandeur” to the larger picture by comparing it to “his own slightly comic triviality.”

Du Fu”s compassion, for himself and others, was part of his general broadening of the scope of poetry: he devoted many works to subjects that had previously been considered unsuitable for poetic treatment. Zhang Jie wrote that for Du Fu, “everything in this world is poetry,” Du wrote extensively on such subjects as domestic life, calligraphy, paintings, animals, and other poems.

Technical excellence

Du Fu”s work is most notable for its scope. Chinese critics traditionally used the term 集大成 (jídàchéng, “complete symphony”), a reference to Mencius” description of Confucius. Yuan Zhen was the first to note the breadth of Du Fu”s achievements, writing in 813 that his predecessor, “united in his work features that earlier poets had shown only separately.” He mastered all forms of Chinese poetry. Chou says that in all its forms he “made outstanding advances or contributed outstanding examples.” Moreover, his poems use a wide range of registers, from the direct and colloquial to the allusive and consciously literary. This variety manifests itself even within individual works: Owen identifies the “rapid stylistic and thematic shifts” in the poems that allow the poet to represent different facets of a situation, while Chou uses the term “juxtaposition” as the main analytical tool in his work. Du Fu is notable for having written more about poetics and painting than any other writer of his time. He wrote eighteen poems on painting alone, more than any other Tang poet. Du Fu”s seemingly negative commentary on Han Gan”s prized horse paintings ignited a controversy that has persisted to this day.

The tenor of his work changed as he developed his style and adapted to his environment (“chameleonic” according to Watson): his early works are in a relatively derivative courtly style, but became properly his own in the rebellion years. Owen comments on the “somber simplicity” of the Qinzhou poems, reflecting the desert landscape; the works of his Chengdu period are “light, often finely observed”; while the poems of the late Kuizhou period have great “density and power of vision.”

Although he wrote in all poetic forms, Du Fu is best known for his lǜshi, a type of poem with strict restrictions on form and content, for example:

窈窕 清 禁 闥 ,

Strike towards the return of different.

You followed the prime minister.

我 往日 華東。

Leaving the audience for the silent corridors,

Majestic and beautiful, we passed through the gates of the Palace,

You can go in different directions: you go to the west.

With the Ministers of State. Me, on the opposite side.

冉冉 柳枝 碧 ,

娟娟 花蕊 紅。

The old man got a good sentence.

獨 贈 白頭翁。

In my area, the fragile willow twigs are greening up.

You are surprised by the scarlet flowers there.

Our separate ways! You write so well, so nicely

To warn, in vain, a loquacious old man.

– “Memorial in response to a friend”s advice” (奉 答 岑參 補闕 見 贈).

Approximately two-thirds of Du Fu”s 1500 extant works are written in this form, and he is generally considered to be its leading exponent. His best lǜshi uses the parallels required by the form to add expressive content rather than as mere technical constraints. Hawkes comments that “it is amazing that Tu Fu is able to use such an immensely stylized form in such a natural way.”

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, many literary critics consider Du Fu”s poems to be among the greatest of all time, stating that “his dense, compressed language makes use of all the connotative nuances of a phrase and the intonational potentials of the individual word, qualities that no translation can ever reveal.”

During his lifetime and immediately after his death, Du Fu was not widely appreciated. In part, this can be attributed to his stylistic and formal innovations, some of which are still “considered extremely daring and bizarre by Chinese critics.” There are few contemporary references to him-only eleven poems by six writers-and these describe him in terms of affect, but not as a model of poetic or moral ideals. Du Fu is also poorly represented in contemporary poetry anthologies.

However, as Hung points out, “he is the only Chinese poet whose influence grew over time,” and his works began to gain popularity in the ninth century. The first positive comments came from Bai Juyi, who praised the moral sentiments in some of Du Fu”s works (although he found them in only a small fraction of his poems), and from Han Yu, who wrote a piece defending Du Fu and Li Bai on aesthetic grounds from attacks made against them. Both writers showed Du Fu”s influence in their own poetic work. In the early 10th century, Wei Zhuang built the first replica of his thatched hut in Sichuan.

It was in the 11th century, during the Northern Song era, that Du Fu”s reputation reached its peak. In this period a complete revaluation of earlier poets took place, in which Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu came to be regarded as the representatives of the Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian streams of Chinese culture, respectively. At the same time, the development of neo-Confucianism ensured that Du Fu, as its poetic exemplar, occupied the supreme position. Su Shi expressed this reasoning when he wrote that Du Fu was “preeminent … because … through all his vicissitudes, he never, even for the space of a meal, forgot his sovereign.” His influence was aided by his ability to reconcile apparent opposites: political conservatives were attracted to his loyalty to the established order, while political radicals embraced his concern for the poor. Literary conservatives could rely on his technical mastery, while literary radicals were inspired by his innovations. Since the establishment of the People”s Republic of China, Du Fu”s loyalty to the state and concern for the poor have been interpreted as embryonic nationalism and socialism, and he has been praised for his use of simple “popular language.”

Du Fu”s popularity grew to such an extent that it is as difficult to measure his influence as Shakespeare”s in England: it was difficult for any Chinese poet not to be influenced by him. While there was never another Du Fu, individual poets followed the traditions of specific aspects of his work: Bai Juyi”s concern for the poor, Lu You”s patriotism, and Mei Yaochen”s reflections on the everyday are a few examples. More generally, Du Fu”s work in transforming lǜshi from a mere pun into “a vehicle for serious poetic expression” laid the groundwork for all subsequent writers of the genre.

In the 20th century, he was the favorite poet of Kenneth Rexroth, who described him as “the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet who has survived in any language,” and commented that “he has made me a better man , both as a moral agent and as a perceiving organism.”


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