Chinese Poets by Dynasty
Chinese Poets by Pinyin Name
Chinese Poets by Wade-Giles Name
Pinyin/ Wade-Giles Conversion
Wade-Giles/ Pinyin Conversion
Contact Information
Links
HOME
Du Fu                                        (Wade-Giles name: Tu Fu)
DU FU (712-770)

If there is one undisputed genius of Chinese poetry it is Du Fu. The Taoist Li Bai was more popular, the Buddhist Wang Wei was sublimely simple and more intimate with nature, but the Confucian Du Fu had extraordinary thematic range and was a master and innovator of all the verse forms of his time. In his life he never achieved fame as a poet and thought himself a failure in his worldly career. Perhaps only a third of his poems survive due to his long obscurity; his poems appear in no anthology earlier than one dated one hundred thirty years after his death, and it wasn't until the 11th century that he was recognized as a preeminent poet. His highly allusive, symbolic complexity and resonant ambiguity is at times less accessible than the immediacy and bravado of Li Bai. Yet there is a suddenness and pathos in much of his verse, which creates a persona no less constructed than Wang Wei's reluctant official and would-be hermit or Li Bai's blithely drunken Taoist adventurer. Most of what we know of his life is recorded in his poems, but there are dangers to reading his poems as history and autobiography. By the time he was in his twenties, he was referring to his long white hairCin the persona of the Confucian elder. As Sam Hamill notes, AIt was natural that many a poet would adopt the persona of the >long white-haired@ and old manCthis lent a younger poet an authority of tone and diction he might never aspire to otherwise.@ Du Fu is sometimes called Athe poet of history@ because his poems record the turbulent times of the decline of the Tang dynasty and constitute in part a Confucian societal critique of the suffering of the poor and the corruption of officials. He also records his own sufferings, exile, falls from grace, the death of his son by starvation; but some critics have suggested that the poems on these themes are exaggerated in the service of self-dramatization.

Du Fu was born to a prominent but declining family of scholar-officials, perhaps from modern day Henan province, though he referred to himself as a native of Duling, the ancestral home of the Du clan. In the Six Dynasties period his ancestors were in the service of the southern courts; his grandfather Du Shenyan, was an important poet of the early Tang dynasty, and a more remote ancestor, Du Yu (222-84), was a famed Confucianist and military man. In spite of family connections, however, Du Fu had difficulty achieving patronage and governmental postings, and twice failed the Imperial Examinations, in 735 and 747. He was a restless traveler, and the poems of this early period show him to be a young man given to revelry, military and hunting arts, painting and music. In 744 he met Li Bai, and this formed the basis for one of the world's most famed literary friendships; the two poets devote a number of poems to each other. In 751 Du Fu passed a special examination that he finagled through submitting rhyme-prose works directly to the emperor, but it wasn't until 755 that he was offered a postCa rather humiliating posting in the provincesCwhich he rejected, accepting instead the patronage of the heir apparent. In the winter of that year, however, the An Lushan Rebellion broke out, and the emperor fled to Sichuan, abdicated, and the heir apparent became the new emperor in Gansu province. Meanwhile, the rebels seized the capital, and Du Fu, attempting to join the new emperor in the distant northwest, was captured by the rebels. He was detained for a year, but managed to escape, and after traveling in disguise through the occupied territory, joined the emperor's court in the position of Reminder. He was arrested soon after four his outspokenness in defending a friend, a general who had failed to win a battle, but was pardoned and exiled to a low posting in Huazhou. He quit his job there, and moved to Chengdu, where he and his family depended upon the kindness of friends and relatives, and moved again and again to avoid banditry and rebellions. In spite of this instability, his poems show a serenity in this period, particularly those from 760-762, when he lived in a Athatched hut@ provided by a patron and friend named Yan Yu, who hired him in the years that followed as a military adviser. After Yan's death in 765, Du Fu left Chengdu, traveling down the Yangtze River, finding patrons and dreaming of a return to Changan, but being prevented by invasions from Tibet. He spent his final three years traveling on a boat, detained in sickness, and finally winding down to his death as he journeyed down the Yangtze, apparently accepting the withering away of his health and life.
___________________


Twenty-Two Rhymes to Left-Prime-Minister Wei

Boys in fancy clothes never starve,
but Confucian scholars often find their lives in ruin.
Please listen to my explanation, Sir,
I, your humble student, ask permission to state my case.
When I was a younger Du Fu
I was honored as a national distinguished guest
and wore out ten thousand books in reading,
My brush was always inspired by gods,
my rhymed essays rivaled those of Yang Xiong,1
my poems were kin with those of Cao Zijian.2
Li Yong looked for a chance to meet me,
and even Wang Han3 wanted to be my neighbor.
I thought I was an outstanding person,
positioned at a key ferryboat route
and would assist an emperor like Yao or Shun,4
and make folk customs honest and simple again.
In the end this ambition withered.
I became a bard instead of a hermit,
and spent thirty years traveling on a donkey,
ate traveler's rations in the luxury of the capital,
knocked on the door of the rich in the morning,
walked in the dust of fat horses in the evening,
ate leftover dishes and half-finished wine.
Wherever I went, I found misery hiding beneath.
When the emperor summoned me,
I was excited at this chance to stretch myself .
I saw blue sky but my wings just hung.
I was set back, had no scales to swim far.
I feel unworthy of your kindness,
and I know your sincerity:
in the presence of one hundred officials,
you read my best poems.
I am as happy as Gong Gong.5
Since it's hard to imitate Confucius disciple Yuan Xian6
How can I feel unhappy about anything,
though my feet still drag as usual?
Now I plan to move east to the sea,
and leave the capital behind me in the west.
But I still feel attached to the Zhongnan Mountain,
and turn my head to look at the Wei River.
I think about my gratitude for one meal7
as I take departure from you, Prime Minister.
This white gull is lost in the waves.
Who can tame him in his journey of ten thousand miles?

        ---Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping


___________________
 

Notes

Yang Xiong (53 B.C. B 18 A.D.): A very well-known rhymed-prose writer in the Han Dynasty.
Cao Zijian: Another name for Cao Zhi (192-232), well-known poet in the Jian-an period.
Li Yong: A famous man of letters during Du Fu's time and he went to Qizhou (Jinan) to meet Du Fu.
Wang Han (678 B 735?): A Tang poet known for his war poems.
Yao and Shun: Names of the wise kings in the legendary Golden Age of Chinese history.
Gong Gong: A reference to Gong Yu of the West Han dynasty. His friend Wang Ji was promoted to a high rank and he felt very happy about it for he knew that Wang Ji would recommend him for a good position.
Yuan Xian: A disciple of Confucius who became a hermit and lived a simple life after Confucius' death.
One meal: Refers to the story of Han Xin in the Historical Records by Sima Qian. Han Xin was very poor when he was young. He was fishing and an old woman washing clothes noticed his hunger and provided him with food. When Han Xin became the King of Chu, he looked for the old woman and gave her a thousand units of gold. After the old woman's death, he had her buried positioned in symmetry with his own mother.
___________________


A Short Poem Written at the Moment When a Rising River Looked Like a Rolling Ocean

I was stubborn by nature and addicted to perfect lines,
fought to the death to find words that startle.
Now in old age my poems flow out freely, the way
flowers and birds forget deep sorrow in spring.

A new water pavilion has been built for fishing with a rod.
I choose to use a bamboo raft instead of a boat.
If only my thoughts were guided by poets Tao and Xie,1
we'd travel and together write poems.


 

        ---Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping


___________________
 

Note:

Tao is the Chinese Thoreau, the poet of nature Tao Yuanming (365-427 A.D), who was also known as Tao Qian; Xie is Xie Lingyun (385-433 A.D.), a well-known poet of mountains and rivers.

___________________
 

No Sight

Li Bai, no sight of you for a long time,
It's tragic that you pretend to be insane.
The whole world wants to kill you.
I alone treasure your talent.
Quick-minded, improvising thousands of poems,
you roam like a falling leaf for a cup of wine.
You studied here at Kuang Mountain
and it's time to return, now that your hair is white.

 

        ---Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

___________________
 

Upon the Military Recovery of Henan and Hebei

News comes to Jianwai1 that Jibei has been recovered
and tears wet my garments when I hear the news.
I turn to look at my wife, all sorrows gone,
and roll up my writings carelessly in crazy joy.
I sing loudly in the sun and can't wait to indulge in wine,
With green Spring as companion it will be a pleasure to return home,
rafting through the Ba and Wu Gorges
then via Xiangyang coming to Luoyang at last!

 

        ---Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

___________________
 

Note:

Jianwai is modern day Chengdu. The poem takes place at the end of the An Lushan rebellion. When Du Fu heard this news, he was said to have improvised this poem on the spot.
___________________


from Autumn Thoughts, Poem 1


Jade frost bites the maple trees
and Wu Mountain and Wu Gorge breathe out dark fear

as river waves rise up to the sky
and dark wind-clouds touch ground by a frontier fortress.

The chrysanthemums have twice bloomed tears of other days,1
When I moor my lonely boat my heart longs for my old garden.

The need for winter clothes hurries scissors and bamboo rulers.
White Emperor City looms over the rushed sound of clothes beaten at
dusk.

 

        ---Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

___________________
 

Note:

1. In other words, he has been away from home for two autumns, two bloomings of the chrysanthemums. Last line: Traditionally, Chinese women wash clothes by a stream or river by beating the clothes on a rock with a wooden club, and in Chinese poetry the sound of beating clothes typically generates homesickness.

 

 
     
copyright 2004 | Whittier College | all rights reserved