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.)