Du Fu (712–770), styled Zimei, also known as Du Shaoling, is one of the greatest poets in Chinese history. Concerned about the nation and the people throughout his life, he depicted the vicissitudes of human life and historical events in his poems, and was regarded as a “poet historian” and a “poet sage.”
Du Fu was born in a traditional literary family in Gong county (present-day Gongyi, Henan province). His thirteenth-generation grandfather, Du Yu (222–285), was a famous Jin dynasty general who was learned and highly capable, and his grandfather, Du Shenyan (ca. 645–708), was a distinguished scholar-official of the Tang dynasty (618–907). The family tradition of profound learning afforded Du Fu the chance to read enormous volumes of books at a young age.
Du Fu’s political aspiration was to assist the emperor, rescue the nation, and restore the great era of the sage kings Yao and Shun. However, his ambitions were difficult to realize in a time of unrest. He roamed Qi-Lu (Shandong) and Wu-Yue (Jiangsu and Zhejiang) areas in his youth, but was stranded in Chang’an (the imperial capital of the Tang) after failing the imperial examination in his middle years. When he finally became an official at the age of forty-four, the An Lushan Rebellion broke out. Drifting about in the times of war, he died in a solitary boat at fifty-nine. Having fallen to the lower rungs of society for most of his rugged life, Du Fu gradually became an eminent poet voicing the hardships of the common people.
Du Fu’s poetry style was directly influenced by his life experiences. In the early years when he traveled around, confident in the future, his style was bold and unrestrained. When trapped in Chang’an and deluged with anxieties, he began to write serious poems exposing social crises. Later, filled with grief and sorrow, his poems were indignant and incisively described the An Lushan Rebellion during which he was captured by the rebels and forced to serve as an officer. Later, during his short respite in Sichuan, his mood turned fresh and alive, so did his poems. While detained in Kuizhou, he wrote beautiful and delicate poems commenting on the rise and fall of the times in a desolate and weighty tone. Finally in his difficult late years when he wandered to the Jing-Xiang area (Hubei and Hunan), his style turned gloomy and melancholy.
Although he remained in obscurity for more than half of his life, Du Fu, with an unshaken resolve, recorded the events of his epoch and used poetry as a weapon to plead on the people’s behalf. Keenly aware of the crisis hidden in the golden age, he exposed the capricious and wasteful life of the upper-class officials in his works well before the An Lushan Rebellion. “Liren xing” (Ballad of a beauty) satirized the lewd and arrogant life of Yang Yuhuan (719–756), the emperor’s favorite concubine, and her family. And the lines “Within vermilion doors the stench of rotten meat and wine, / Out on the road the bones of the frozen dead.” created a shocking contrast between the rich and the poor. During the time of the rebellion, Du Fu portrayed the disasters caused by war. Among his masterpieces, “Chunwang” (Spring view) touchingly conveys indignation at the ruin state and the longing for his family. His poem sets “San li” (Three poems on officials) and “San bie” (Three farewell poems) depict the incompetence of rulers at war with rebels and the woeful spectacle of forced recruitment; “Song of a Cottage Roof Lifted by Autumn Gales” expresses the poet’s sincere willingness to sacrifice his own happiness for other poor scholars. These poems, either reflecting current events, or criticizing social maladies, or expressing his ambitions or feelings, contribute to his reputation as a “poet-historian.” He also composed many excellent works on mountain climbing, travelling, friendship, family love, and literary criticism.
Praised by Yuan Zhen (779–831), a Tang poet, as “epitomizing all previous arts and mastering all poetry styles,” Du Fu was proficient in every style of poetry. His innovations in form, technique, language, and prosody inspired many poets of later generations. And thus became the patriarch of various poetic schools. With his achievement in reflecting social realities and the people’s suffering, he became a role model for the concerned literati who advocated poetic reform after the Tang dynasty. As one of the greatest patriotic poets of China, he earned the title of “poet-sage.”
Du Fu tremendously influenced later generations. After the Song dynasty, there was such a large number of commentaries to his poems, they were known as the “thousand annotators of Du Fu’s poems.” His poetry spread to Japan in the eleventh century and to Britain, France, Russia, and other Western countries in the eighteenth century.