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Du Fu Biography | Poet

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Du Fu or Tu Fu (712–770) was a prominent Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. Along with Li Po (Li Bai), he is frequently called the greatest of the Chinese poets. His own greatest ambition was to help his country by becoming a successful civil servant, but he proved unable to make the necessary accommodations. His life, like the whole country, was devastated by the An Lushan Rebellion of 755, and the last 15 years of his life were a time of almost constant unrest.

Initially unpopular, his works came to be hugely influential in both Chinese and Japanese culture. He has been called Poet-Historian and the Poet-Sage by Chinese critics, while the range of his work has allowed him to be introduced to Western readers as "the Chinese Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Wordsworth, Béranger, Hugo or Baudelaire". (Hung p. 1).


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



Since the Song dynasty Du Fu has been called by critics the "poet historian" (ÔŠÊ· sh¨© sh¨«). The most directly historical of his poems are those commenting on military tactics or the successes and failures of the government, or the poems of advice which he wrote to the emperor. Indirectly, he wrote about the effect of the times in which he lived on himself, and on the ordinary people of China. As Watson notes, this is information "of a kind seldom found in the officially compiled histories of the era" (p. xvii).

Du Fu's political comments 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". (Chou p. 16) Since his views were impossible to disagree with, however, his forcefully expressed truisms enabled his installation as the central figure of Chinese poetic history.


Moral engagement

A second favourite epithet of Chinese critics is that of "poet sage" (ÔŠÂ} sh¨© shèng), a counterpart to the philosophical sage, Confucius. One of the earliest surviving works, The Song of the Wagons (from around 750), gives voice to the sufferings of a conscript soldier in the imperial army, even before the beginning of the rebellion; this poem brings out the tension between the need of acceptance and fulfilment of one's duties, and a clear-sighted consciousness of the suffering which this can involve. These themes are continuously articulated in the poems on the lives of both soldiers and civilians which Du Fu produced throughout his life.

Although Du Fu's frequent references to his own difficulties can 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 wider picture by comparing it to "his own slightly comical triviality" (p. 204).

Du Fu's compassion, for himself and for others, was part of his general broadening of the scope of poetry: he devoted many works to topics which had previously been considered unsuitable for poetic treatment. Zhang Jie wrote that for Du Fu, "everything in this world is poetry" (Chou p. 67), and he wrote extensively on subjects such as domestic life, calligraphy, paintings, animals and other poems.


Technical excellence

Du Fu's work is notable above all for its range. Chinese critics traditionally used the term ¼¯´ó³É (jídàchéng- "complete symphony"), a reference to Mencius' description of Confucius. Yuan Zhen was the first to note the breadth of Du Fu's achievement, writing in 813 that his predecessor, "united in his work traits which previous men had displayed only singly". (Chou, p. 42) He mastered all the forms of Chinese poetry: Chou says that in every form he "either made outstanding advances or contributed outstanding examples" (p. 56). Furthermore, his poems use a wide range of registers, from the direct and colloquial to the allusive and self-consciously literary. The tenor of his work changed as he developed his style and adapted to his surroundings ("chameleon-like" according to Watson): his earliest works are in a relatively derivative, courtly style, but he came into his own in the years of the rebellion. Owen comments on the "grim simplicity" of the Qinzhou poems, which mirrors the desert landscape (p. 425); the works from his Chengdu period are "light, often finely observed" (p. 427); while the poems from the late Kuizhou period have a "density and power of vision" (p. 433).

Although he wrote in all poetic forms, Du Fu is best known for his l¨¸shi, a type of poem with strict constraints on the form and content of the work. About two thirds of his 1500 extant works are in this form, and he is generally considered to be its leading exponent. His best l¨¸shi use the parallelisms required by the form to add expressive content rather than as mere technical restrictions. Hawkes comments that, "it is amazing that Tu Fu is able to use so immensely stylized a form in so natural a manner" (p. 46).

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