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Du Fu (712-770), Chinese Tang Dynasty Poet

Updated on January 23, 2012

The Chinese Tang dynasty poet Du Fu is often called the sage of poetry. His works show his great concern for the country and his love for the emperor. Du Fu was compassionate about the time he lived in and grieved over its chaos. He refused compromise in adversity, and stayed faithful to his convictions even in the midst of great poverty.

Du Fu's poetry is quite different from that of the spontaneous flow of Li Po's poems. Unlike Li Po, this poet wrote in various styles, works that were often innovative in language and subject matter. They were also filled with meaning.

Du Fu took great care engineering his masterpieces, utilizing parallelisms and other rhetorical and prosodic methods in novel and astonishing ways, always aiming to crack up new areas of expression. His self-proclaimed goal was to astound and startle with the creative freshness of his poetry.

This kind of initiative was of course unwelcome by the readers of his time, who rarely showed much appreciation for his original and innovative work. The masses in fact hated and scolded it. Like many artists, whose work involves experimentation and an effort to move on to something new and fresh, Du Fu was only recognized for his genius long after his death.

The poet Du Fu
The poet Du Fu

The Life of Du Fu (杜甫) 712-770

Du Fu was born in Henan in the region of Luoyang. Although he came from an influential literary family, his early attempts to secure a position with the government by way of the exam system or special appointment failed repeatedly.

He was 43 years old, when he finally managed to get into an official position. This was the time when Emperor Xuanzong (唐明皇) - who was in his 60s - became attracted to the beautiful Yang Guifei (楊貴妃) and made her his concubine, which Du Fu severely criticized in his “Song of the Beautiful Ladies.*”

As the emperor got distracted from affairs of state, the court turned into a hotbed of factionalism and certain military leaders far out in the borderlands were becoming too powerful. Du Fu took office in 755, the same year when one such leader revolted against the court in An Lushan and mobilized his army to march into the Tang capital area. The emperor fled to the West and left the governing of the state to his son. Du Fu and his distinguished family took the road north to escape the rebels.

After a while, the poet left his family and tried to get to the headquarters of the new emperor, but he was captured and held prisoner by the rebels in Chang’an. After order had been restored again, Du Fu got back his position in the capital. However, he did not enjoy the favor of the new emperor and was redeployed to a minor provincial post. In 759 he finally left this disgraceful position and spent the rest of his life wandering about in the country.

As he felt the end approaching due to his illness, he took the road down along the Yangtze, trying to reach his old home in the east, but he died on the way.

Song of Pengya by Du Fu

The poem recounts the journey of Du Fu's family as they fled north from the rebels that attacked the capital.

I remember when we first fled the rebels.
hurrying north over dangerous trails;
night deepened on Pengya Road.
the moon shone over White-water Hills.
A whole family endlessly trudging,
begging without shame from the people we met:
valley birds sang. a jangle of soft voices;
we didn't see a single traveler returning.
The baby girl in her hunger bit me;
fearful that tigers or wolves would hear her cries,
I hugged her to my chest, muffling her mouth,
but she squirmed and walled louder than before.
The little boy pretended he knew what was happening;
importantly he searched for sour plums to eat.
Ten days, half in rain and thunder,
through mud and slime we pulled each other on.
There was no escaping from the rain.
trails slick, clothes wet and clammy;
getting past the hardest places,
a whole day advanced us no more than three or four li.

Confucius and his disciples
Confucius and his disciples

Du Fu's Poetry

Unlike in the case of Li Po, Du Fu’s poetry is largely personal revealing to us the course of his tortured life amidst the tumults of the time. He possessed a strong Confucian sense of duty towards the dynasty to which he was deeply loyal. Striving to amend the ills of the country, as a government official he proved to be well-intentioned but vain.

It was in another sense that he managed to achieve his moral purpose. His art describes the sadness that misrule, famine and civil unrest were imposing on him and his nation. He is most renowned for his works that are at the same time a lament on the sorrows of his countrymen, and a reproach to those who he held responsible for the creation of such misery.

Due to the honest and compassionate tone in his works, later ages named Du Fu the Sage of Poetry, and called him the artistic counterpart of Confucius himself. He employed modern-style poetry forms and tonally regulated forms - the 8-line regulated verse in particular. About a thousand of his 1450 poems are written in such forms.

It is precisely this fact that makes Du Fu's poetry very difficult to translate. The beautiful features of language that the Chinese so admire in his poetry are inevitably lost in most translations.

*Song of the Beautiful Ladies by Du Fu

The poem is a veiled attack on Emperor Xuanzong (唐明皇) and Yang Guifei (楊貴妃).

Third month, third day, in the air a breath of newness;
by Chang'an riverbanks the beautiful ladies crowd,
warm-bodied, modest-minded, mild and pure,
with clear sleek complexions, bone and flesh well matched,
in figured gauze robes that shine in the late spring,
worked with golden peacocks, silver unicorns.
On their heads what do they wear?
Kingfisher glinting from hairpins that dangle by sidelock borders.
On their back what do I see?
Pearls that weight the waistband and subtly set off the form.
Among them, kin of the lady of cloud screen and pepper-scented halls,
granted titles to the great fiefs of Guo and Qin.
Humps of purple camel proffered from blue caldrons,
platters of crystal spread with slivers of raw fish;
but ivory chopsticks, sated, dip down no more,
and phoenix knives in vain hasten to cut and serve.
Yellow Gate horses ride swiftly, leaving the dust unstirred.
hearing from royal kitchens unending rare delights.
Plaintive notes of flute and drum, enough to move the gods;
throngs of guests and lackeys, all the highest rank:
and last, another rider, with slow and measured stride,
dismounts at the tent door, ascends the brocade carpet.
The snow of willow catkins blankets the white-flowered reeds:
a bluebird flies away, in its bill a crimson kerchief -
Where power is all-surpassing, fingers may be burned;
take care and draw no closer to His Excellency's glare!

Emperor Xuanzong playing the flute for Yang Guifei
Emperor Xuanzong playing the flute for Yang Guifei

Spring View by Du Fu

Du Fu's Spring View is a perfect example of a penta-syllabic poem in regulated verse.

Regulated Verse has the following rules:

  • The poem has 8 lines in 4 couplets.
  • The 2 middle couplets (lines 3-4, 5-6) are antithetically arranged, meaning line 4 parallels line 3 in both grammar and meaning, line 6 parallels line 5 the same way.

It is often the case, however, that great poets do not bother as much about the rules as their admirers and imitators do. In Spring View, not only the middle couplets, but the first couplets, too, contain verbal parallelism.

The country is broken, though hills and rivers remain,
In the city in spring, grass and trees are thick.
Moved by the moment, a flower's splashed with tears,
Mourning parting, a bird startles the heart.
The beacon fires have joined for three months now,
Family letters are worth ten thousand pieces.
I scratch my head, its white hairs growing thinner,
And barely able now to hold a hairpin.


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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      My husband loves Du Fu's poetry and when we were in Chengdu, there is a place there dedicated to him.

    • Tolovaj profile image

      Tolovaj 3 years ago

      It's very interesting to learn few things about Chinese poetry and its historical context. Although my first impression was many things were more advanced in China than in Europe, the position of an artist in general was not so different. I guess the language of poetry is universal after all.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 6 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Haunty you continue to teach us new material with each fascinating hub. You are a HubPage star! Voted UP!

    • Haunty profile image

      Haunty 6 years ago from Hungary

      Posh, I love the poems too. Thanks for reading, friend! :D

      Ardie, you're not alone. It's beyond me how I find the topics even though it's I doing the finding. It's almost like... um.. nevermind. :D

    • Ardie profile image

      Sondra 6 years ago from Neverland

      Beautiful research and work as usual. You always have THE most interesting topics. It's beyond me how you find them even though it's explained in your interview ;)

    • poshcoffeeco profile image

      Steve Mitchell 6 years ago from Cambridgeshire

      Haunty I have said it before. Your knowledge is vast on many subjects and this hub is no exception. I love this poetry, it is so descriptive.

      Interesting hub thanks.