Du Fu (Tu Fu)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Du Fu (Tu Fu)

Du Fu (Tu Fu) (712-770) Chinese poet and philosopher

A patriot and eyewitness to the imperial turmoil of the Tang dynasty, Du Fu (also known as Tu Fu) wrote from the heart lyrics of warfare and PROTEST. The grandson of a politician and poet, Du was native to Henan Province in east-central China. He grew up outside Luoyang but considered the capital city of Chang'an his home. Motherless, raised by an aunt and his scholarly father, he trained for the civil service, and traveled to Chinese cities. Although educated in standard Confucianism, he repeatedly failed imperial exams. After his marriage, his health worsened from respiratory disease and the effects of flood and famine. He wrote on a broad span of topics, including CREATION LORE in “Gazing at the Sacred Peak” (ca. A.D. 747) and the hardship of impressed soldiers in “The Song of the Wagons” (ca. A.D. 750).

Du Fu experienced a sustained series of disappointments. In vain, he courted imperial preferment by sending ceremonial verses to the Emperor Xuanzong. His life changed at age 43 following the An Lushan Rebellion in December 755, when the poet was employed in the residence of Crown Prince Li Cong. Du's flight from some eight years of civil war left him destitute. With his infant daughter in his arms, he, his wife, and three other children wandered mountain roads. In T'ung- chia Marsh, he dedicated a poem to a friend who sheltered Du's family. Famine, fear, and warfare produced in him sympathies with refugees and prisoners of war. The grim simplicity of his canon of some 1,500 poems influenced subsequent Chinese and Japanese lyricists.

Through lingual dissonance, strict metrics, and metaphoric ambiguity, Du Fu cultivated realism in impressions of his era. After his demotion to a desk job in the department of education in A.D. 757, he expressed the frustrations of bureaucracy, a disdain for court corruption, and his yearning for peace. The poem “Moonlit Night” (ca. 757) laments separation from his children in Chang'an; “Chen-Tao Lament” (ca. 759) recoils from young casualties, “forty thousand dead in a day” while Mongol veterans carouse in the marketplace and belt out lusty songs (Du Fu 1989, 25). The emotionally bruising “Peng-Ya Song” (ca. 757) describes survivors of imperial downfall as humbled beyond shame: “No one returned the way we came” (28). “Feng-Hsien Return Chant” (ca. 755) pities the elderly, wrapped in “harlequin rags,” their minds twisted beyond repair (18). In “Facing Snow” (ca. 757), he sees himself as a “lone old grief-sung man” amid the ghosts of war (26). He complains of beggary in “Asking of Wu Lang Again” (ca. 768), in which his

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childless neighbor starves and ducks heartless tax collectors, who “[keep] her bone poor” (97).

Shifts about the country and reduction to a thatched hut in 762 elicited domestic verse on family and contentment, which Du pictures as lamplight over books and koto (zither) in “Facing Night” (ca. 768): With the empire returned to peace, hens roost for the night in his thatched ceiling. Two years later, the poet served as a combat adviser on the Tibetan frontier. On his return home by riverboat in spring 765, he grew feeble from asthma, deafness, and failing vision. At a stopover at Guizhou in south-central China, he rallied enough to work as a government secretary and to compose 400 lyrics. He regretted his low status: “Appointments / Advising lords are no certainty for my sons” (96). Amid a flood, when “lament seizes every district,” he portrayed himself tottering in wooden clogs, “Adrift, slight as a floodcharm, I sail for peach / Branches of immortality” (9). Near the end of his lifetime of struggles, he asserted, “In idleness, I become real” (62). Before he could complete his return to Luoyang, he died at age 58 in Hunan Province.


Chou, Eva Shan. Reconsidering Tu Fu: Literary Greatness and Cultural Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Du Fu. The Selected Poems of Tu Fu. Translated by David Hinton. New York: New Directions, 1989.

Hung, William. Tu Fu, China’s Greatest Poet. New York: Textbook Publishers, 2003.