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.)