Du Fu Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Du Fu is considered the greatest of Chinese poets as well as one of the giant figures of world literature.

Early Life

Du Fu descended from the nobility, and his family tradition was both scholarly and military. He was the thirteenth-generation descendant of Du You, a marquess and an army general who was married to a princess of the imperial family. Du Fu’s great-grandfather was Du Yiyi, a mid-level government official. His grandfather was Du Shenyan, a jinshi (literally, “entered scholar”) who served in minor official positions and was a respected poet. Du Fu’s father, Du Xian, served in minor government posts. His mother was of imperial blood. She apparently died during his birth.

Little is known about Du Fu’s childhood or teenage years and the education he received. He studied the Confucian Classics to prepare himself to take the examination for the jinshi degree, the gateway to officialdom for most men. Evidence also suggests that he attended private schools. Apart from his acquaintance with the Szu-shu wu-ching (the four books and the five classics), he probably also studied Sun Wu’s military classic, the Sun-tzu ping fa (Sun Tzu on the Art of War).

What is known about Du Fu’s early life comes largely from his poems, many of which are autobiographical. In a poem written in 762, known as “Brave Adventures,” he refers to himself at the age of seven when he writes, “My thoughts already concerned heroic deeds;/ My first song was on the phoenix, the harbinger of a sagacious reign.” In the same poem, he refers to himself at the age of nine, when he began to practice calligraphy by writing “big characters” (that is, foot-square characters), which accumulated until there “were enough to fill a bag.” He also remarks that his nature was “spirited,” that he was already “fond of wine,” that he “hated evil” unremittingly, and that he abandoned children his own age to associate exclusively with adults. At age fourteen or fifteen Du Fu had entered into literary competition, and the local literati declared him a prodigy. In another poem written about the same time (c. 760), entitled “A Hundred Anxieties,” Du Fu reveals that despite his seriousness about learning and writing at this age, he was still very much a boy: At fifteen, his “heart was still childish,” he was as “strong as a brown calf,” and in one day he “could climb the trees a thousand times.”

At age nineteen, Du Fu began to see the world. He set forth in a southwesterly direction toward the lands of “Wu and Yüeh” (modern Jiangsu and Zhejiang). His journey was to last four years (731-735). He described his visit to Xuzhou, a city noted for its scenic wonders and rich past. In viewing the city’s ancient ruins, Du Fu recalled certain historical personages and the events associated with them. His journey completed, he returned northward by boat, eventually reaching his home in Jingzhao.

In the following year (736), Du Fu, now in the prime of life at age twenty-four, was invited by his prefecture to Chang-an to sit for the examination for the jinshi degree. Yet, for reasons unknown, he failed the examination.

Life’s Work

Du Fu’s failure in the examination practically put an end to his chances to have an official career. Although embittered, he never actually gave up this ambition and continually sought an official appointment by other means. In the meantime, he paid his respects to the prefect of Jingzhao and then left for his parents’ residence at Yanzhou, where he would have to face their disappointment.

Soon, however, Du Fu set out on another journey. This time he went to Qi and Zhao (modern Shandong and southern Hebei). This trip would occupy him for another four years (736-740). His activities during these travels are also described in “Brave Adventures.” He employed himself mainly by honing his skills in falconry, horsemanship, archery, and hunting. He recalled this period of his life in another poem, written in 766, entitled “Song of the White-Headed.” In this poem, he regrets that his present age no longer permits him to perform the exciting and adventurous feats of his youth:

Suddenly I think of youthful days,
When frosty dew froze on the steps and door.
On a Tatar horse I clasped an ornamented bow;
My humming string was not loosed in vain.
My long shaft sped after the cunning hare;
Its swift feathers fitted to the bow’s full moon.
Mournful, the Song of the White-headed;
Deserted now, the haunts of the gallants.

Du Fu’s second journey was brought to a close by the death of his father in 740. He had to make the funeral arrangements, tend to his father’s affairs, and find a place for the family to live. Du Fu chose Yanshi, northeast of Luoyang, the eastern capital. There he built a house, which the family occupied in 741.

Soon Du Fu took up residence in Luoyang. There he met the older poet Li Bo, who had just been dismissed from the court in Chang-an. With Li Bo and another distinguished poet, Gao Shi, Du Fu made excursions to various historic sites in Henan. Du Fu and Li Bo met again—for the last time—the following year (745). At this time Du Fu wrote two poems concerning their friendship. (Later, about 758, not having heard from Li Bo since their parting, Du Fu wrote his two famous poems entitled “Dreaming of Li Po—Two Poems.”) Sometime between 742 and 745 Du Fu had married and fathered a child. In 746 he and his family moved to Chang-an. There, he once again sought an official appointment.

The years from about 730 to 745 may be taken as the formative stage, or First Period, of Du Fu’s poetic development. Yet only four of his poems written during this period are extant. Du Fu’s violation of conventional literary techniques can be seen in one of these poems, “A Poetry Contest After Dinner at the Tso Villa.” Here he departs from the traditional decorum of subgenres and their themes, since his poem is both about meeting and about departing. He draws an extensive contrast in comparing the “firmament” to a “thatched roof . . . studded with stars.” He also tries to balance the demands of “the book and the sword” (shu jian) in the statement “We consult books; . . . We re-examine the sword. . . .”

In addition, Du Fu affirms that his victory in the poetry contest (described in the poem) was, in effect, a conquest of Wu. (He wrote that the poem was chanted in the Wu dialect.) It was an action equal to the political and military feats of the heroes of China’s antiquity. Du Fu refers to the small boat of Fan Li (fifth century b.c.e.), the minister of Ku Jian, King of Wu. It is said that Fan Li, having enabled his king to gain a...

(The entire section is 2840 words.)

Du Fu Biography

(World Poets and Poetry)

Du Fu’s life could best be described as one of frustration. Although his mother’s family was related to the imperial clan, and both his father and grandfather held official positions in the government, much of Du Fu’s life was spent in poverty. Unable to pass the examination for entrance into official service, Du Fu remained, more often than not, a “plain-robed” man, a man without official position and salary. His poems from the mid-730’s allude to “the hovel” in which he lived on the outskirts of the capital while the court members resided in the splendor of the palace. One of Du Fu’s sons died from starvation in 755 because of the family’s poverty, and the poet’s sadness and anguish caused by his son’s death is reflected in several of Du Fu’s poems.

Du Fu was born in Gongxian, Henan Province, in 712. His natural mother died at an early age, and Du Fu’s father remarried, eventually adding three brothers and a sister to the family. Du Fu was apparently a very precocious child. In his autobiography, he states unabashedly that at the age of seven he pondered “only high matters” and wrote verses about beautiful birds, while other children his age were dealing with puerile subjects such as dogs and cats. At an early age, Du Fu also mastered a great number of the characters which make up written Chinese. He was writing so extensively by the age of nine, he claims, that his output could easily have filled several large bags. Not much else is known about Du Fu’s early years. As would be expected, he was schooled in literary matters in preparation for entrance into official service. A firsthand knowledge of the many facets of Chinese life and the geography of the country also became a part of Du Fu’s education: He traveled for about three years before taking the official examination for public service. His poetry of this period reflects the experiences and sights he encountered while traversing the countryside.

In 735, at the age of twenty-three, Du Fu finally took the test to enter government service and failed. Apparently there was something in Du Fu’s writing style, in the way he handled the Chinese characters, which did not suit the examiners. This setback in Du Fu’s plans ushered in the first of several important phases in his life. Since the poet had failed the examination and was without a position, he resumed his travels. During these travel years, several significant changes occurred in his life. His father died in 740, which prompted a series of poems on the theme of life’s impermanence. This event was followed by Du Fu’s marriage to a woman from the Cui clan, a marriage which ultimately produced two sons and four daughters for the poet. Finally, and probably most important in terms of his literary work, Du Fu met Li Bo in 744.

Following the Daoist tradition, Li Bo, who was ten years Du Fu’s senior, had become a “withdrawn” poet after his banishment from the court. As such, he represented a viewpoint opposite to that of Du Fu concerning a literate man’s obligations to Chinese society at that time. Du Fu’s poetry exhibits his grappling with these contending views. He was sometimes attracted to the simple lifestyle of Li Bo, but the Confucian ethic under which Du Fu had been reared persevered, and he returned to the capital in 746, eleven years after his first attempt, to repeat the test for an official position. He failed again; this time, according to the historians, one of the emperor’s officials was afraid that new appointees to the bureaucracy would weaken the latter’s power in the court, so he saw to...

(The entire section is 1470 words.)

Du Fu Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Du Fu (doo foo; also known as Tu Fu) lived during the century when China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907) reached the peak of its political and cultural achievement and began its long decline. The pivotal event in the lives of both the poet and the dynasty was the An-Shi Rebellion, which ended the reign of Xuanzong, “the Brilliant Emperor,” and brought the death of many thousands of Chinese people. Its importance is fully reflected in Du Fu’s poetry; in fact, the poems that made his reputation were written after the rebellion began, when he was already in his mid-forties.

The poet was born in 712 in Gongxian, China. His father’s name was Du Xian. The family had a tradition of many generations of public service, and...

(The entire section is 937 words.)

Du Fu Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The horrors of the mid-century An-Shi Rebellion elicited in Du Fu the supreme Confucian value of compassion for his fellow human beings. Parallel to his strong awareness of the everyday world and his sense of public responsibility was an urge to experience the unity of humanity and the natural world. Yet the physical destruction and dislocation that he saw around him made it hard for the poet to see nature as harmonious, although occasionally he was able to transcend his own troubles and those of his country.

(The entire section is 87 words.)

Du Fu Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

For more than a millennium, Du Fu (doo foo), or Tu Fu, has enjoyed virtually unquestioned stature as China’s greatest poet; he occupies a unique position comparable to that of William Shakespeare in English-speaking countries. What is known about Du Fu’s life has been largely reconstructed from his poetry; he seems to have been a brilliant poet who spent most of his life vainly seeking court preferment. His family, although in straitened circumstances, was a notable one with royal, military, and literary connections. A distant ancestor was the general Tu Yü (222-284), and a more recent one the poet Tu Shen-yen (d. 708).{$S[A]Tu Fu;Du Fu}

Du Fu’s education is unrecorded, but as he took the imperial examinations,...

(The entire section is 788 words.)