One of the greatest poet in the history of mankind, Du Fu 杜甫’s fame is up there with the likes of Wordsworth, Tennyson et al. His works have been translated in many languages and are still mandatory coursework for students in China, Japan and Korea. Let’s take a look at this man that gave us so much heartache in school.
Thanks to the groundbreaking work “Du Gongbu Chronology”《杜工部年谱》(1084 AD) by Lv Dafang 吕大防 (1027-1097), we are able to link Du Fu’s works year by year to the historical and biological situations of his lifetime. We can now then relate and understand the life and works, and the history of the Tang Dynasty during Du Fu’s lifetime.
Brief Biography of Du Fu
Du Fu 杜甫 (AD 712-770), common name Zimei 子美, native of Xiangyang 襄阳, later migrated to Gong County 巩县, Henan Province.
Also known as his pseudonym Shaoling Ye Lao 少陵野老, he is a great realist poet in the Tang Dynasty. Shaoling 少陵 is the tomb of the Empress Xu 许后 of Emperor Xuandi of Han Dynasty 汉宣帝 (91-49 BC), who was also buried in Gongxian in Duling 杜陵.
Du Fu has far-reaching influence in Chinese classical poetry. He is called the “Poetry Sage” “诗圣” by later generations, and his poems are called “poetic history” “诗史”. He was also known by many pseudonyms as these were referred to in his poems like Du Shaoling 杜少陵 (referring to his self-title in poems, and his hometown in Shaoling) and Du Caotang 杜草堂 (referring to his cottage in Chengdu), or by later generations through his associations of official titles like Du Shiyi 杜拾遗 (his only title from the Emperor, sort of Auditor General), Du Gongbu 杜工部 (referencing his title in Civil Department in Chengdu).
Li Bai and Du Fu
It’s interesting that Li Bai 李白 and Du Fu, the two greatest poets in Chinese history that crossed paths during the same period were good friends. In the autumn of 744, Du Fu met Li Bai and became friends. They were known by later generations as “Li Du” 李杜. Li’s poets are romantic while Du’s are more realistic. Li was 11 years older than Du and he influenced Du greatly in poetry composition.
Du wrote a lot of poems missing Li, for example:
But there were only one poem that can be attributed to Li Bai that he wrote about Du Fu. So the whole relationship may be romanticised by the later generations, even though Du Fu said they were so closed that they shared a bed and held hands when sightseeing. Li Bai was a huge celebrity of his time, showered with honours because of his genius. Du Fu, on the other hand, aspired to a career as a civil servant, but he failed the exam and was too prickly to network his way into a good post. So we could safely conclude Du Fu was simply a fanboy.
Although Du Fu’s reputation was not prominent when he was alive, he had a far-reaching impact on Chinese literature and Japanese literature. About 1,500 poems of Du Fu have been preserved, most of which are compiled in the Collection of Du Gongbu《杜工部集》. These poems are now carved along the corridors of the Stone Steeles in Du Fu Thatched Cottage in Chengdu.
Du Fu created masterpieces such as Viewing Spring 《春望》, Northern Expedition《北征》, Three Officials and Three Farewells 《三吏三别》. In 759, Du Fu abandoned his political office and escaped to Sichuan. Although he avoided the war and lived a relatively stable life, he still cared about what was going on around him and national affairs. Although Du Fu is a realist poet, he also has an unrestrained side. It is not difficult to see Du Fu’s fervour for life and pleasure from his masterpiece “Eight Immortals of Drinking” Song《饮中八仙歌》, where he described eight of his friends (including Li Bai) in drunkard splendour.
Political Ambitions (740 – 755)
The core of Du Fu’s politics and belief is the Confucian thought of benevolence. He had grand political ambition but unfortunately he was born in an era when the politics in Changan require special favours. He took an Imperial Examination in 747 AD, and unfortunately the Prime Minister of the day Li Linfu 李林甫 declared that the “Tang Dynasty has no more talents” 野无遗贤. This resulted in this self-recommendation which gave us an intimate glimpse of the poet’s talents and self appraisal written to one of cabinet ministers.
This is a very interesting piece of poetry by Du Fu, “Xuandu altar song sent to Yuan Yiren”《玄都坛歌寄元逸人》is one of the rare sonnet that wasn’t about his patriotism or the suffering of the people. This 752 AD 天宝十一年 poem was written for a Taoist priest Yuan Yiren 元逸人 about a mythological encounter in the Taoist tradition. It was written and carved on a cliff face outside the temple and went unnoticed for years. This was a calligraphy work by famous Song-Yuan calligrapher Zhao Mengfu 赵孟頫 (1254-1322).
Escaping the War (755 – 760)
Looking through his poems, Du had left most of them as a brief commentary of history of the late Tang Dynasty, and his laments of the beginning of the fall of the great empire. The main narration was about ordinary people living a very hard life, a dazzling contrast to the luxury life the rich and the powerful had. He wrote:
On his way of being a refugee, those poems vividly outlined people’s bitterness. Even the oldest man in remote villages would be forced to join the army, now that his sons had already died on the battlefield.
From the time that he declined his official post at Huazhou 华州 onward, he passed through Longzhou 陇州 and was a sojourner in Qinzhou 秦州, and made thatched cottages wherever he settled in, most famous one being in Chengdu 成都.
Spring Night Rain Garden 春夜喜雨园 (760 – 765)
After years of moving around trying to escape the war zones, he finally settled down in Chengdu in 760 AD 上元元年. For the next 5 years, he would led a relatively peaceful life in the thatched cottage that he built for his wife, two children and himself, and enjoyed the companies of his neighbours and friends in the Chengdu Plains.
Su Shi 苏轼, alias Su Dongpo 苏东坡 (who gave his name to the famous dish Dongpo Braised Pork Belly 东坡肉) wrote a beautiful interpretation of Du Fu’s poem about the completion of the thatched hut in 760 AD.
Second year after he settled in Chengdu, he wrote this seminary work.
Prince Cheng Aisin Gioro Yongxing 清成亲王永瑆 (1752-1623) was Emperor Qianlong’s 11th son and was an accomplished calligrapher. His calligraphy work of Du Fu’s poem about his neighbour Madam Huang Siniang 黄四娘 was carved in modern time into a rock and placed at the entrance of the Thatched Cottage in Chengdu.
Du had great ambitions to achieve something great but failed by unfair reality. However, some critics said Du in fact was quite susceptible to fate and enjoyed the leisure life in Sichuan.
What a serene picturesque view! It’s barely able to witness the Xiling Mountain (Wester Snow Mountain) from Chengdu city nowadays but it’s common in his era. I think this is also why people never get tired of reading Du’s poems, to find the beautiful scenery depicted in poems besides his intention for dedication to his country.
Final Years (765 – 770)
He uprooted the family and left Chengdu in 765 AD 广德三年 after the death of his friend and sponsor Yan Wu 严武. He came to Kuizhou 夔州 (modern day Bidicheng 白帝城 in Chongqing 重庆) in 766 AD 大历元年 and stayed for two years under the sponsorship of Governor of Kuizhou Bo Maolin 柏茂林. It was here in Kuizhou that he wrote one of his greatest hits, “Ascending the Heights” 《登高》.
Here, the poet described the seasonal characteristics of autumn, and the empty and lonely scenery by the river. The last four lyrics, he wrote about the feelings of ascending high, lamented the sadness of poverty, old age and illness, and living in a foreign place.
In 768 AD (大历三年), his little boat continued through the Three Gorges, and he floated to the isles of Jingzhou 荆州, passed Lake Dongting 洞庭湖, and ventured to Xiangtan 湘潭.
Du Fu died on the boat by the banks of Tanzhou 潭州 (modern day Changsha 长沙) in the winter of 770 AD 大历五年. He left behind his wife and two children.