Facing the Snow by Du Fu

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Facing the Snow” is a war poem that employs meteorological rhetoric to great advantage. The winter snowstorm is especially suitable as the theme of the poem because the war raging in the background was a cataclysm of cosmic proportions in the T’ang dynasty.

China has a long tradition of war poetry that focuses on the suffering of the people and the devastation of the country. Unlike Greek poetry, Chinese poetry generally does not glorify the heroism of military prowess, and an awareness of this humanistic vision is crucial to an appreciation of the poem. “Facing the Snow” dramatizes the traumatic upheaval of a nation by underscoring the anxiety and stress experienced by a citizen who also happens to be an official, a writer, and a victim of the war.

A political theme is also embedded in the war theme of the poem. To understand this, one has to make a distinction between the frontier war and the civil war. Although the T’ang dynasty—one of the greatest ages of China—was successful in many of its frontier wars against the “barbarians,” T’ang poets were inspired not by war’s triumph, but by death, desolation, and devastation. Frontier wars, in other words, generally carry negative connotations in T’ang war poetry. In contrast, civil wars, which official historians describe in terms of “chaos,” “rebellion,” and “bandit uprising,” are usually treated with a double awareness. On the one hand, civil wars are horrifying because they are just as destructive as any frontier war can be; on the other, since the livelihood of poets—many of whom are government officials—will be jeopardized if the government loses, the rebelling party often carries a disproportionate share of the blame in the eyes of poets. Seen from this perspective, “Facing the Snow,” written in the context of the An-Shih Rebellion, can be described as a poem typifying the “civil war complex.” This complex is further complicated by the facts that the rebel leader An Lu-shan has an ethnic (“barbarian”) background, that his rise to power is a result of the incompetence of court ministers, and that the emperor has been blind to the ill effects of the nepotistic intrigues that have been wreaking havoc in the political system. Although “Facing the Snow” is not designed—like Po Chü-yi’s “Song of Eternal Sorrow”—to treat these complicated issues, Du Fu’s position is that of a patriot.