About Du Fu 杜甫
Du Fu, 杜甫; pinyin: Dù Fǔ; Wade–Giles: Tu Fu; 712–770) was a prominent Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. Along with Li Bai (Li Bo), he is frequently called the greatest of the Chinese poets. His greatest ambition was to serve his country as 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 his last 15 years were a time of almost constant unrest.
Although initially he was little known to other writers, his works came to be hugely influential in both Chinese and Japanese literary culture. Of his poetic writing, nearly fifteen hundred poems have been preserved over the ages. He has been called the "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".
Traditionally, Chinese literary criticism has placed great emphasis on knowledge of the life of the author when interpreting a work, a practice which Watson attributes to "the close links that traditional Chinese thought posits between art and morality". Since many of Du Fu's poems prominently feature morality and history, this practice is particularly important. Another reason, identified by the Chinese historian William Hung, is that Chinese poems are typically extremely concise, omitting circumstantial factors that might be relevant, but which could be reconstructed by an informed contemporary. For modern Western readers, "The less accurately we know the time, the place and the circumstances in the background, the more liable we are to imagine it incorrectly, and the result will be that we either misunderstand the poem or fail to understand it altogether". Owen suggests a third factor particular to Du Fu, arguing that the variety of the poet's work required consideration of his whole life, rather than the "reductive" categorisations used for more limited poets.
Most of what is known of Du Fu’s life comes from his poems. His paternal grandfather was Du Shenyan, a noted politician and poet during the reign of Empress Wu. Du Fu was born in 712; the birthplace is unknown, except that it was near Luoyang, Henan province (Gong county is a favourite candidate). In later life, he considered himself to belong to the capital city of Chang'an, ancestral hometown of the Du family.
Du Fu's mother died shortly after he was born, and he was partially raised by his aunt. He had an elder brother, who died young. He also had three half brothers and one half sister, to whom he frequently refers in his poems, although he never mentions his stepmother.
The son of a minor scholar-official, his youth was spent on the standard education of a future civil servant: study and memorisation of the Confucian classics of philosophy, history and poetry. He later claimed to have produced creditable poems by his early teens, but these have been lost. Map of eastern interior Chinese cities of Luoyang, Chang'an, Qinzhou, Chengdu, Kuizhou, and Tanzhou Du Fu's China
In the early 730s, he travelled in the Jiangsu/Zhejiang area; his earliest surviving poem, describing a poetry contest, is thought to date from the end of this period, around 735. In that year, he took the civil service exam, likely in Chang'an. He failed, to his surprise and that of centuries of later critics. Hung concludes that he probably failed because his prose style at the time was too dense and obscure, while Chou suggests his failure to cultivate connections in the capital may have been to blame. After this failure, he went back to traveling, this time around Shandong and Hebei.
His father died around 740. Du Fu would have been allowed to enter the civil service because of his father's rank, but he is thought to have given up the privilege in favour of one of his half brothers. He spent the next four years living in the Luoyang area, fulfilling his duties in domestic affairs.
In the autumn of 744, he met Li Bai (Li Po) for the first time, and the two poets formed a friendship. David Young describes this as "the most significant formative element in Du Fu's artistic development" because it gave him a living example of the reclusive poet-scholar life to which he was attracted after his failure in the civil service exam. The relationship was somewhat one-sided, however. Du Fu was by some years the younger, while Li Bai was already a poetic star. We have twelve poems to or about Li Bai from the younger poet, but only one in the other direction. They met again only once, in 745.
In 746, he moved to the capital in an attempt to resurrect his official career. He took the civil service exam a second time during the following year, but all the candidates were failed by the prime minister (apparently in order to prevent the emergence of possible rivals). He never again attempted the examinations, instead petitioning the emperor directly in 751, 754 and probably again in 755. He married around 752, and by 757 the couple had had five children—three sons and two daughters—but one of the sons died in infancy in 755. From 754 he began to have lung problems (probably asthma), the first of a series of ailments which dogged him for the rest of his life. It was in that year that Du Fu was forced to move his family due to the turmoil of a famine brought about by massive floods in the region.
In 755, he received an appointment as Registrar of the Right Commandant's office of the Crown Prince's Palace. Although this was a minor post, in normal times it would have been at least the start of an official career. Even before he had begun work, however, the position was swept away by events.
Luoyang, the region of his birthplace, was recovered by government forces in the winter of 762, and in the spring of 765 Du Fu and his family sailed down the Yangtze, apparently with the intention of making their way there. They traveled slowly, held up by his ill-health (by this time he was suffering from poor eyesight, deafness and general old age in addition to his previous ailments). They stayed in Kuizhou (now Baidicheng, Chongqing) at the entrance to the Three Gorges for almost two years from late spring 766. This period was Du Fu's last great poetic flowering, and here he wrote 400 poems in his dense, late style. In autumn 766, Bo Maolin became governor of the region: he supported Du Fu financially and employed him as his unofficial secretary.
In March 768, he began his journey again and got as far as Hunan province, where he died in Tanzhou (now Changsha) in November or December 770, in his 58th year. He was survived by his wife and two sons, who remained in the area for some years at least. His last known descendant is a grandson who requested a grave inscription for the poet from Yuan Zhen in 813.
Hung summarises his life by concluding that, "He appeared to be a filial son, an affectionate father, a generous brother, a faithful husband, a loyal friend, a dutiful official, and a patriotic subject."