Lu You (1125–1210), courtesy name (zi) Wuguan, studio name (hao) Fangweng, was a native of Shanyin, Yuezhou (modern Shaoxing, Zhejiang province). His life was one of patriotism and poetic achievement, but also of some disappointment. In 1154, the twenty-fourth year of the Shaoxing reign period of Emperor Gaozong (1107–1187; r. 1127–1162) of the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), Lu You successfully took the exam for jinshi (“presented scholar”), the highest level of degree within the civil service examination system. However, he was eliminated from consideration for an official position because of his strong support for military action to recover China’s Central Plain territories from the non-Chinese Jurchen-ruled Jin dynasty (1115–1234). Such advocacy would have infuriated the powerful Chancellor Qin Hui (also spelled Qin Gui or Qin Kuai, 1091–1155), a proponent of a policy of appeasement with the Jurchen occupiers. Only after the fall and death of Qin Hui, and particularly after the ascension of Emperor Xiaozong (1127–1194, r. 1162–1189) did his civil service career begin to develop. In fact the emperor bestowed a jinshi degree on Lu You soon after he came to power. As an official, Lu You served successively as tongpan (controller-general) in Zhenjiang (in Jiangsu province), Longxing (present-day Nanchang, Jiangxi province), and other places. Unfortunately, his praise of Zhang Jun (1097–1164) and his northern expedition against Song’s enemies eventually led to his being impeached and removed from office. But in 1172, the eighth year of the Qiandao reign period, Lu You was called back to government work, to serve under Wang Yan (1115–1178), then the pacification commissioner of Sichuan, acting concurrently as administrator and legal researcher. Lu You arrived at the then Nanzheng (now Hanzhong, Shaanxi), the frontier of Song and Jin confrontation, to start his army experience. But shortly afterwards Wang Yan was removed from his post in Nanzheng and recalled to the capital; Lu You was transferred to Chengdu, in the interior of Sichuan. In 1175, the second year of the Chunxi reign period, Lu You then took on the role of consultant in the faction of Fan Chengda (1126–1193), then military commissioner of Sichuan. Thereafter perhaps because of disillusionment with the course his life had taken, as well as enjoying the camaraderie of Fan, Lu You fell into drinking and neglected his duties. At the age of fifty-two, he gave himself the studio name of Fangweng, which means “Liberated Old Man,” half-seriously, half-sarcastically describing his current situation. Lu You’s later career was marked by appointments, demotions, and impeachment as detailed below.

In his poetic works created while involved with the military in Nanzheng and then in Shuzhong (modern central Sichuan province), Lu You described his ideal method of waging war (to recover the Song’s lost lands) while voicing his indignation at this unrealized aspiration; he denounced the faction favoring peace as drifting along into an easy path providing them with temporary ease which would, however, inevitably not end well. His poetry was composed amidst his consumption of alcohol and his appreciation of the countryside during his travels; his mood is one of depression and despair at not being able to serve his country as he wished. In order to commemorate his life and the poetry he created during this period, Lu You especially titled this collection of poems Jiannan shi gao (Draft poems written in Jian’nan). In 1178, the fifth year of the Chunxi reign period, Lu You was recalled back to Lin’an (Hangzhou), then the capital of the Southern Song. He remained idle at home after being dismissed in 1180, the seventh year of the Chunxi reign period. But then the imperial court nominated him in 1186, during the spring of the thirteenth year of the Chunxi reign period to serve as grand master for court audiences, a kind of ancient prestige title, exercising that right in Yanzhou (now Jiande of Zhejiang province); he was, nevertheless, impeached again and lost this position in 1189 for being convicted of “overindulging in poems and liquor.” In 1190, the first year of the Shaoxi reign period, he retired to spend his remaining years in his hometown of Shanyin, Yuezhou (now Shaoxing, Zhejiang province) living in seclusion for twenty years. In 1202, the second year of the Jiatai reign period, he was recalled from his retirement and reinstated in government service, and was hopeful for a time that his dream to help his country would be fulfilled, but was disappointed again before long and returned home. On January 26, 1210 the old poet died at age eighty-five, no doubt within himself still experiencing the sorrow of frustrated ambition and dashed hopes so well expressed in his poems.

Throughout his life, Lu You composed poetry with extreme industriousness, handing down to later generations around ten thousand poems. Coupled with his valuable experience in creativity. Lu You versified on a wide range of subjects so his poems are rich in content—covering all aspects of life. Among all of his themes works concerned with war—attacking and resisting the enemy as reflective of China’s then current situation vis a vis the Jin dynasty are most prominent, while poetry exploring the beauty of nature and savoring inspiring aspects of daily life also reflect Lu You’s sensitive temperament. Furthermore, his works composed on rural themes, along with verses permeated with the sorrows of love are also exceptionally accomplished.  

Lu You believed life experiences were a key element in the creation of significant poetry. He emphasized what is called yang qi (nourishment of the spirit) as well as jie si (that is focused on heroic thinking as way to achieve unique expression). This can be seen in the heroic abandon of the poem “Ji meng” (Recording a dream) with lines like “The wording was straightforward, the style and force lofty, / The poem surged like a tempestuous wind driving autumn waves.” In Lu You’s poems one encounters meticulous and accurate depiction with a vivid realistic style. Simple and plain, smooth and comfortable, the language utilized in his poems is often in neat meters which are unadorned, while his parallelisms are usually well-structured but not overly rigid. Furthermore, they are unusual in an interesting but never overly polished or affected manner. For this Lu You has always been praised.

Harboring ambition tempered by a magnanimous mind and enduring a life of many setbacks, Lu You has been highly respected and admired by posterity. His literary works express the beauty of his heroic and lofty spirit, with, in particular, his sublime heroism, warrior heart and uprightness, as well as awe-inspiring righteousness. Thus his example has inspired readers of successive dynasties including many of more recent times including the scholar Liang Qichao (1873–1929). Liang was so inspired by his reading of Lu You that he wrote a whole series of poems about this which were subsequently collected into the Du Lu Fangweng ji (Poems written upon reading the collected works of Lu Fangweng) in which he wrote: “There has been general trend of decadence in poetic circles for centuries; / The robust militancy and brave spirit of devotion to the country have vanished. / Nine tenths of his poetry is about the joys of serving in the army; among the stalwart men throughout the ages, there is only one Fangweng!” This shows the high acclaim Lu You has received in later generations.