The Tang dynasty (618-907) is often known as the golden age of Chinese poetry, and the apex of its cultural glory, the High Tang, was marked by China’s two greatest poets of all time: Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770). Though the question of who is China’s greatest poet, Li or Du, recurs throughout Chinese literary history and commentary, as the incredible influence Du Fu (杜甫, also written as Tu Fu) has had in the development of Chinese history cannot be omitted.
As Stephen Owen, a great Sinologist and prolific translator, observed, poets in China’s history were often advised to imitate Du Fu (Owen, 1981). While Li Bai’s greatness was seen as part of nature, uncontrolled by man and perhaps the result of immortal heritage, Du Fu’s excellence is seen as resting in his versatility, innovative style, and his treatment of subjects ignored by his contemporaries. While Li Bai was admired even by his contemporaries as a lively poet who defied conventions, Du Fu’s poetry, which more often followed the rules of poetic form, both expanded and changed those conventions by introducing new perspectives and topics such as his family, unremarkable but common life events, and more immediately personal depictions of war (Owen, 1981). Owen, who considers Du Fu as the unequivocal greatest poet of China, likens him to Shakespeare in that Du Fu’s “literary accomplishment has itself become a major component in the historical formation of literary values” (Owen, 1981:183).
Unlike his contemporary Li Bai, Du Fu’s pre-eminence in Chinese poetry came posthumously. In contrast to Li Bai, who was born to an unknown family and never sat the official examinations of the Tang dynasty, Du Fu came from a literary family and strove for the conventional means of recognition by taking the exams—and failing twice. After he finally gained recognition from the Tang Emperor Xuanzong by sending him poems, Du Fu received a governmental position in 755, the year in which the devastating An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) and the subsequent political and military upheaval began. During and following the rebellion, Du Fu never managed to gain the governmental relevance he sought; he held only minor posts, and after resigning or losing those positions, travelled through China. About thirty years after his death, Du Fu’s poetry gained recognition, and by the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279), his work had gained so much prominence and importance that it became a standard by which all other poetry was measured. For this, Du Fu earned the epithet of the “Sage of Poetry” from later poets and commentators (Watson, 1984; Owen, 2015; Fuller, 2018).
The approximately 1,450 extant poems of Du Fu can generally be split into four categories: his earlier works before the An Lushan Rebellion, his works during and about the rebellion, the poems he wrote while he lived in Chengdu in southwestern China from 760 to 765, and the poems from his final travels on the Yangzi river before his death. As both the translator Burton Watson and Owen have pointed out, Du Fu’s clever linguistic innovations, which made full use of traditional literary conventions and established allusive language while adding different perspectives and moods, make his poetry some of the most difficult to translate, and always lose much of their complexity in translation (Watson, 1984; Owen, 1981). The range of Du Fu’s ability and poetry were such that Du Fu can be and has been, studied as a master of style and regulated verse, of creative imagination, of personal poetry, of social commentary, and more. Furthermore, the posthumous veneration for Du Fu’s poetry, which began in the early 9th century, combined with the lack of recognition during his own life, also turned Du Fu into the epitome of the excellent but undervalued Confucianist: highly educated and well-read, ever loyal to the empire, and cognizant of his moral obligations (Owen, 2015; Owen, 1981).
One of Du Fu’s epithets, “Poet Historian” (诗史, shi shi), relates most strongly to his poetry revolving around the An Lushan Rebellion. While war was a topic of earlier Chinese poetry, most mentions of it were limited to descriptions of partings caused by war or other indirect representations. Du Fu, on the other hand, treated the subject with skill and personal involvement that contributed to a new perspective in Chinese poetry: that of the poet’s personal life. Du Fu captured the moments from his life, his family’s lives, and of the rebellion through not only traditional and highly structured Chinese poetic forms, but also through original autobiographical narrative poetry that interwove his personal experiences with universal themes. Before Du Fu, poets did not write on topics such as minor grievances or other random occurrences in their lives, their children’s lives, or even their wives.
The moon tonight in Fu-chou,
She watches alone from her chamber,
While faraway I think lovingly on daughters and sons,
Who do not yet know how to remember Ch’ang-an.
In scented fog, her cloudlike hairdo moist,
In its clear beams, her jade-white arms are cold.
When shall we lean in the empty window,
Moonlit together, its light drying traces of tears.
This poem, written in five-character regulated verse while Du Fu was a captive in Chang’an during the An Lushan Rebellion, nonetheless introduces novelty into Chinese poetry. Regulated verse, of five or seven characters per line and eight lines, followed phonetic, rhetorical, and aesthetic rules and conventions. In “Moonlit Night,” Du Fu uses traditional conventions such as connecting moonlight with the separation of friends or lovers and the language used to describe a woman’s appearance. However, unlike poets before him, Du Fu’s poem is not about illustrious ancestors or important or archetypal court women, but about his own wife. Along with the final line, which hints at moonlight witnessing the reunion of Du Fu and his wife, using these traditional tropes to represent entirely new and avoided subjects is part of what makes Du Fu so imitated and loved.
A Guest Arrives
North of my lodge, south of my lodge, spring rivers all;
Day by day I see only flocks of gulls convening.
Flower paths have not been swept for any guest;
My thatch gate for the first time opens to you.
For food—the market’s far—no wealth of flavors;
For wine—my house is poor—only old muddy brew.
If you don’t mind drinking with the old man next door,
I’ll call across the hedge and we can finish off what’s left.
While scholars admire Du Fu’s capturing of different personal and social aspects of the An Lushan Rebellion and the dense, highly technical poetry of his later years, the poetry Du Fu wrote in Chengdu is especially loved by over a millennium of Chinese scholars and readers. He continued to demonstrate not only perfection in regulated forms but also an ability to encompass a range of emotions from mellow enjoyment to profound reflection and self-mockery. “A Guest Arrives,” written in regulated seven-character verse, is considered one of the poems most representative of this period of his life. As Owen says, “there was scarcely a major poet who did not imitate the first couplet” (Owen, 1981:211).
Du Fu’s place as one of China’s greatest—if not the greatest—poets is beyond argument. His astonishing mastery of a broad range of styles, emotions, and poetic topics not only stands out in the history of Chinese poetry but has also shaped its development. This article offers a general introduction to Du Fu and the many ways he has influenced Chinese literary tradition, but readers interested in Chinese poetry will find that further study of China’s illustrious poet can illuminate not only the earlier traditional poetry that Du Fu was a master of, but also the later trends which developed out of Du Fu’s work.
Du, F., & Owen, S. (2016). The Poetry of Du Fu. Volume 1. Boston; Berlin De Gruyter. Kroll, P. (2010). Poetry of the T’ang Dynasty. In The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press. Liu, J. J. Y. (1962). The Art of Chinese Poetry. Routledge & Kegan Paul. Minford, J., & Lau, J. S. M. (2000). Classical Chinese Literature. Vol. 1: An Anthology of Translations: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty. Columbia University Press and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Owen, S. (1981). The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T’ang. Yale University Press. Watson, B. (1971). Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century, with Translations. Columbia Univ. Pr. Watson, B. (1984). The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century. Columbia University Press.
Figure 1: Unknown. (n.d). Portrait of Du Fu, China Daily. Retrieved July 8, 2022, from https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2016-04/25/content_24815558.htm Figure 2: Shitao. (1642-1707). Wilderness Cottage [Painting]. Met Museum. Retrieved July 8, 2022, from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/49176 Figure 3: Unknown. (n.d). Du Fu. Wikimedia. Retrieved July 10, 2022 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dufu.jpg Figure 4: Unknown. (n.d). Du Fu's Thatched Cottage Garden [Photograph]. Wikimedia. Retrieved July 8, 2022, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Du_Fu_Thatched_Cottage_Garden.jpg