The two indigenous religions of China, Confucianism and Daoism, both hinge on the word “Dao,” or “Way,” meaning the principle by which human beings are to seek harmony. Confucianism tended to emphasize the social elements of the Dao, putting particular value on the virtues of truthfulness, diligence, filial piety, and loyalty to government as likely to generate harmony on earth. Daoism itself, on the other hand, was skeptical about the possibility of illuminating the Dao at all, and it taught that the Way might only be known through an inner awareness and union with the ultimate reality of all things. Du Fu’s family history of government service generated in him a Confucian sense of the importance of public responsibility, but as his friendship and admiration for the Daoist poet Li Bo suggest, there was a quietist streak to his character, which found expression in frequent praise of rural life and the hermit’s role. Du Fu’s sympathy with both polarities of the Chinese value system may help to account for his enormous poetic prestige.
Until the 750’s, Du Fu did not seem to have been particularly interested in the public world, but then he produced a number of poems on social issues, possibly in response to a deterioration in governance. A poet would not have been regarded as moving out of his proper sphere in writing political commentary; since Confucianism regarded government as of vital concern to the wise man, there was a long tradition of using poetry as a vehicle for social and political criticism. Du Fu’s “ballads,” however, are unusually direct, and his engagement with political events has gained for him the title of the “poet-historian.”
One of the first of these poems was “Song of the War Wagons.” The opening lines describe conscripted men going to war behind the baggage wagons, while their wives, parents, and children stumble after them, weeping. A soldier tells how he and his fellows, driven “like dogs or chickens,” have given their blood to satisfy the emperor’s expansionist ambitions. The poem has been praised for its acute sensitivity to the ordinary person’s difficulties. Du Fu also wrote about the evils of conscription in the three “officer” poems (759). The last of these tells of an old man who escapes over the wall right as the recruiting officer arrives. All his sons have gone to the war, and now even his wife and daughter-in-law are taken to cook for the army. At this point, Du Fu can only offer compassion since the people are being taken to defend the empire, not expand it.
The concept of re, of benevolence, charity, or good-heartedness, was the paramount Confucian virtue, and in Du Fu’s poems of the rebellion it finds frequent expression. “A Fine Lady” shows his compassion for a well-born woman. Her brothers were killed in the rebellion, and her husband deserted her for a younger woman, so she is now reduced to selling her pearls one by one. With an eye for compelling detail, Du Fu tells how she and her maid ineffectually try to cover the holes in their roof with living creepers.
Very few poets wrote about the An-Shi Rebellion, and while there were ancient precedents for such poems as “Song of the War Wagons,” Du Fu was breaking new ground when he wrote about his family’s experiences. “P’eng-ya Road” describes them walking through the rain and mud, their clothes wet and cold, his son eating bitter plums, and his daughter biting her father in her hunger. Eventually, they arrive at a friend’s house, and the poem becomes a celebration of hospitality. Friendship is one of the traditional subjects of Chinese literature, and the drama of his family’s journey and their pitiful condition makes the friend’s hospitality glow all the more brightly as a moment of blessed harmony in a disordered world.
A reverence for nature is a continuing theme in Chinese verse, and many of Du Fu’s poems express a degree of unity with the natural world. In “Moonlit Night,” he finds himself in harmony with his wife and children when he considers that they are looking at the same moon in Fu-zhou that he sees in Ch’ang-an. In “Facing the Snow,” however, he evokes...
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