Traditional Chinese literary criticism emphasized the life of the author when interpreting a work, a practice which the American scholar Burton Watson attributed to “the close links that traditional Chinese thought posits between art and morality”. Since many of Du Fu’s poems feature morality and history, this practice is particularly important. Another reason, identified by the Chinese historian William Hung, is that Chinese poems are typically concise, omitting context that might be relevant, but which an informed contemporary could be assumed to know. 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”. Stephen 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” categorizations 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 Zetian (r. 690–705). Du Fu was born in 712; the exact 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 Imperial examination , 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.
The statue in his Thatched Cottage, Chengdu, China War
The An Lushan Rebellion began in December 755, and was not completely suppressed for almost eight years. It caused enormous disruption to Chinese society: the census of 754 recorded 52.9 million people, but ten years later, the census counted just 16.9 million, the remainder having been displaced or killed. During this time, Du Fu led a largely itinerant life unsettled by wars, associated famines and imperial displeasure. This period of unhappiness was the making of Du Fu as a poet: Eva Shan Chou has written that, “What he saw around him—the lives of his family, neighbors, and strangers– what he heard, and what he hoped for or feared from the progress of various campaigns—these became the enduring themes of his poetry”. Even when he learned of the death of his youngest child, he turned to the suffering of others in his poetry instead of dwelling upon his own misfortunes.
Du Fu wrote:
Brooding on what I have lived through, if even I know such suffering, the common man must surely be rattled by the winds.
In 756, Emperor Xuanzong was forced to flee the capital and abdicate. Du Fu, who had been away from the city, took his family to a place of safety and attempted to join the court of the new emperor (Suzong), but he was captured by the rebels and taken to Chang’an. In the autumn, his youngest son, Du Zongwu (Baby Bear), was born. Around this time Du Fu is thought to have contracted malaria.
He escaped from Chang’an the following year, and was appointed Reminder when he rejoined the court in May 757. This post gave access to the emperor but was largely ceremonial. Du Fu’s conscientiousness compelled him to try to make use of it: he caused trouble for himself by protesting the removal of his friend and patron Fang Guan on a petty charge. He was arrested but was pardoned in June. He was granted leave to visit his family in September, but he soon rejoined the court and on December 8, 757, he returned to Chang’an with the emperor following its recapture by government forces. However, his advice continued to be unappreciated, and in the summer of 758 he was demoted to a post as Commissioner of Education in Huazhou. The position was not to his taste: in one poem, he wrote:
I am about to scream madly in the office / Especially when they bring more papers to pile higher on my desk.
He moved on in the summer of 759; this has traditionally been ascribed to famine, but Hung believes that frustration is a more likely reason. He next spent around six weeks in Qinzhou (now Tianshui, Gansu province), where he wrote more than sixty poems.
In December 759, he briefly stayed in Tonggu (modern Gansu). He departed on December 24 for Chengdu (Sichuan province). where he was hosted by local Prefect and fellow poet Pei Di. Du subsequently based himself in Sichuan for most of the next five years. By the autumn of that year he was in financial trouble, and sent poems begging help to various acquaintances. He was relieved by Yan Wu, a friend and former colleague who was appointed governor general at Chengdu. Despite his financial problems, this was one of the happiest and most peaceful periods of his life. Many of Du’s poems from this period are peaceful depictions of his life at Du Fu Thatched Cottage. In 762, he left the city to escape a rebellion, but he returned in summer 764 when he was appointed an advisor to Yan, who was involved in campaigns against the Tibetan Empire.
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 (in what is 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.”
Below is an example of one of Du Fu’s later works, To My Retired Friend Wei (Chinese: 贈衛八處士). Like many other poems in the Tang it featured the theme of a long parting between friends, which was often due to officials being frequently transferred to the provinces:
人生不相見， It is almost as hard for friends to meet
動如參與商。 As for the Orion and Scorpius.
今夕復何夕， Tonight then is a rare event,
共此燈燭光。 Joining, in the candlelight,
少壯能幾時， Two men who were young not long ago
鬢髮各已蒼。 But now are turning grey at the temples.
訪舊半為鬼， To find that half our friends are dead
驚呼熱中腸。 Shocks us, burns our hearts with grief.
焉知二十載， We little guessed it would be twenty years
重上君子堂。 Before I could visit you again.
昔別君未婚， When I went away, you were still unmarried;
兒女忽成行。 But now these boys and girls in a row
怡然敬父執， Are very kind to their father’s old friend.
問我來何方。 They ask me where I have been on my journey;
問答乃未已， And then, when we have talked awhile,
兒女羅酒漿。 They bring and show me wines and dishes,
夜雨翦春韭， Spring chives cut in the night-rain
新炊間黃粱。 And brown rice cooked freshly a special way.
主稱會面難， My host proclaims it a festival,
一舉累十觴。 He urges me to drink ten cups
十觴亦不醉， But what ten cups could make me as drunk
感子故意長。 As I always am with your love in my heart?
明日隔山嶽， Tomorrow the mountains will separate us;
世事兩茫茫。 After tomorrow – who can say?