Nirmal DASS

Statue of Du Fu, an eminent poet who lived through the decline of the Tang dynasty. He is often called “China’s Shakespeare.” PHOTO BY PAUL AND BERNICE NOLL.

One of the most prominent and influential of Chinese poets, Du Fu expanded the reach of poetic expression to include morality and history, along with literary concerns. He is often referred to as the “Chinese Shakespeare.”

The “golden age” of China is often associated with the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), especially with the reign of Emperor Xuanzong and three eminent poets: Wang Wei, Li Bai (also Li Bo, Li Po), and Du Fu. Whereas Wang Wei and Li Bai wrote during the apex of the Tang period, Du Fu lived through the eventual destruction of this golden era.

Du Fu was born in Luoyang, in Henan Province, to a family of scholar-officials. From his earliest days, as was typical for a young man of his class, his education involved the rigorous study of the works of Confucius, the honing of writing skills, and the perfecting of poetry composed in various formal meters.

Once such an education was deemed complete, the student was faced with the challenge of taking the imperial civil service examination. Those who passed became the younger generation of scholar-officials. At this time few people were literate, given the complexity of the classical Chinese writing system; thus the pool of scholar-officials was small. Because their skills were greatly needed, scholar-officials were often found at the center of courtly life. However, such was not to be Du Fu’s life. He took the official examinations twice and failed both times. This made life difficult for him since he was trained in a vocation that had its proper function within courtly life. So he took up literary pursuits, supported by family and friends.

Evidence from his poems suggests that it was during this period that he met Li Bai, who was a renowned poet by this time. However, Li Bai appears not to have assisted in furthering Du Fu’s career at court. At the age of thirty-four, Du Fu married and would eventually have five children. His hardships continued until at last he succeeded in securing a minor court position. But political turmoil soon engulfed his world.

In 755 the An Lushan rebellion, which would last for eight long years, began. The Emperor Xuanzong abdicated and fled to Sichuan. Du Fu and his family were captured by the rebels but managed to escape to Yinchuan, in Ningxia, where Suzong, the son of Xuanzong, had been declared emperor by the royal army. But the new emperor cared little for Du Fu and gave him a very minor post. This led to much resentment on the part of Du Fu, who eventually left the emperor’s service in 760.

He spent time wandering about until he came to Chengdu, in the Sichaun province, where he took up residence in his famed “thatched cottage,” where he wrote many of his poems. His poetry is unique in that it is filled with Confucian ideals, as well as personal concerns. This allowed him to examine the plight of the individual in the wider flow of history.

His financial woes were allayed by the kindness of friends, chief among them the governor of Chengdu. When the rebels were finally driven from his native city of Luoyang by the royal army in 762, Du Fu eagerly set out, intending to return and live there once again. But his life of deprivation had taken its toll, and he suffered from various ailments, making travel slow and often impossible. He died in 768 at Changsha, in Hunan province, just as he set out once more for Luoyang.

Further Reading

Davis, A. R. (1971). Tu Fu. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Graham, A. C. (1965). Poems of the late T’ang. Baltimore: Penguin.

Hightower, J. R., & Chou, E. S. (1995). Reconsidering Tu Fu: Literary greatness and cultural context. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Liu, J. J. Y. (1962). The art of Chinese poetry. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Owen, S. (1996). An anthology of Chinese literature. New York: W.W. Norton.

Man struggles upwards; water flows downwards.

水往低处流, 人往高处走

Shuǐ wǎng dīchù liú, rén wǎng gāochù zǒu

Source: Dass, Nirmal. (2009). DU Fu. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 648–649. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

DU Fu (Dù Fǔ 杜甫)|Dù Fǔ 杜甫 (DU Fu)

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