BORN: 712, Kung-hsien, Honan, China
DIED: 770, T’an-chou, China
‘‘Eight Immortals of Drinking’’
‘‘Facing the Snow''
‘‘A Song of Lo-Yu Park’’
Tu Fu. Chinese poet Tu Fu, photograph. The Art Archive / British Library / The Picture Desk, Inc.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest Chinese poets, Tu Fu is known for his contemplative verse that chronicled the political and social upheaval of mid-eighth-century China. Praised for his innovative use of traditional verse forms and his synthesis of a variety of elements drawn from previous Chinese literature, Tu Fu also drew imagery from his personal experiences to create compelling verse that served as an inspiration to succeeding generations.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Life and Work. Tu Fu was born in Kung-hsien, Honan (also spelled Henan), a province of central China. His mother died when he was a child, and he was raised by an aunt in Loyang. In about 731, he began traveling through the Yangtze River and Yellow River regions, and approximately five years later he moved to Ch’ang-an, the capital, in order to secure an official post. Failing the imperial examination for public office, Tu Fu resumed traveling. In 744 he met the poet Li Po in Loyang. Tu Fu’s friendship with Li Po served as material for some of his most famous poems, including ‘‘Eight Immortals of Drinking,’’ which reflects on the carefree atmosphere of his time spent in Loyang. Tu Fu returned to Ch’ang-an in 746 to retake the examination for public office and failed again. He remained in Ch’ang-an until he acquired a minor post in the early 750s. While he attained some official recognition for his poetry during this period, his multiple failures of the literary examinations indicate that his work was not highly esteemed at court. When the An Lu-shan rebellion broke out in 755, Tu Fu was captured by the rebels, but later escaped and lived as a refugee until he was able to return to court in 757. He was soon banished from the capital as a result of his outspoken advice to the emperor. Tu Fu spent the next nine years wandering through various cities in Szechuan Province, at one point holding the position of military advisor in the governor’s headquarters in Ch’eng-tu. This was his most prolific period, during which he wrote acclaimed poems about social issues. After his governor-appointed patron died in 765, Tu Fu began another trip along the Yangtze River that ended with his death at the age of fifty-eight.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Tu Fu's famous contemporaries include:
Charles Martel (688-741): Martel, also known as ''the Hammer,'' was a towering figure in medieval European history: founder of the Carolingian dynasty, his tactical innovations led to a Frankish victory over the invading Moors at the Battle of Tours, the turning point that is regarded as the end of Muslim expansion in the West.
Jia Dan (730-805): Jia's writings on geography and trade routes have provided historians with detailed information on the Asian world of the eighth century. Commissioned by the emperor, Jia Dan oversaw the creation of a map of China and its neighbors that was thirty feet square.
Bede (672/673-735): Generally referred to as the Venerable Bede, this English monk was one of the most active scholars of the Dark Ages. His masterwork, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, has led to his being called the Father of English History.
Harun al-Rashid (763-809): Beginning his reign around the time of Tu Fu's death, this Persian caliph's magnificent lifestyle is said to have inspired many of the tales in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.
Li Po (701-762): Along with Tu Fu, Li Po is considered one of the two greatest poets in Chinese history. As renowned for his love of wine as for his imaginative Taoist verses, he is said to have died by drowning after drunkenly trying to embrace his own reflection in the moonlit Yangtze River.
Han Gan (706-783): Chinese painter renowned during his lifetime and for centuries after for his ability to paint horses.
Works in Literary Context
Alienation and Hardship. Tu Fu’s canon of more than fifteen hundred poems demonstrates a variety of verse forms and themes. Much of his work is characterized by a sometimes self-deprecating tone, particularly the later poems in which he chronicled the alienation he felt as an aging traveler. In ‘‘A Song of Lo-yu Park,’’ he recalled the exuberance of an outdoor party, but ended the poem, ‘‘Nowhere to return after drinking, I am standing alone in the dusk, composing poems.’’ A sense of loss and despair informs many of Tu Fu’s poems from the post-rebellion period, including ‘‘Lament for Ch’en- t’ao,’’ ‘‘Lament for Ch’ing-fan,’’ and ‘‘Facing the Snow,’’ all sorrowful depictions of the destruction wrought by the rebellion and subsequent war. ‘‘Traveling North’’ is a melancholy description of Tu Fu’s reunion with his family: ‘‘I am now facing my son after narrowly escaping from death. Let me forget for a while all the hardships of life.’’ Many of Tu Fu’s poems of social protest were written during the post-rebellion period and contrast the suffering of the impoverished villagers with the lavish life of the court.
Confucian Ideals, Warm Humanism. Tu Fu is philosophically a Confucian earnestly accepting his duties to his family and to the state, and this perspective is reflected in his poems. Confucianism focuses primarily on the performing of good deeds as a way of expressing the divine. The ideal poet, as he conceives it, is the scholar who by virtue of knowing the realities, desires, and aspirations of human nature also knows how best to counsel and advise in matters of state. The poet is also the official, or, better, the ideal official is the ideal poet. In poetry he composes his ‘‘reminders’’ to the throne, intended as advice to the emperor. Politics is not to him a peculiar science, categorically apart from other branches of knowledge and understanding. In this respect also he is a true humanist.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The T'ang Dynasty (618-907) was a fertile period for Chinese poetry. Study of the other major T'ang poets can provide a greater historical context for Tu Fu's place among his contemporaries.
The Selected Poems of Wang Wei (2006). A contemporary of Tu Fu, Wang Wei's poetry characterizes the then- emerging tenets of Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism: calm acceptance and close appreciation of nature.
The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan (2000). A master of the landscape poem and another enthusiastic Ch'an poet, Meng Hao-jan is credited with starting the flowering of Tang poetry that would be carried on by the likes of Tu Fu.
The Selected Poems of Li Po (1998). Reputedly, Li Po could compose fully realized poems, in their finished form, extemporaneously. Over one thousand of his poems survive today, and he is still one of the most popular and widely read poets in China.
Works in Critical Context
According to Stephen Owen, ‘‘Within the Chinese poetic tradition, Tu Fu is almost beyond judgment because, like Shakespeare in our own tradition, his literary accomplishment has itself become a major component in the historical formation of literary values.’’ However, Tu Fu was not highly regarded during his lifetime; critics speculate that his contemporaries, accustomed to the rigid forms and styles of Chinese verse, were unable to appreciate his synthesis of traditional elements. However, his works were favorably reevaluated by Chinese poets and scholars several decades after his death, and since that time his enormous contributions to the development of Chinese literature have been meticulously researched.
Influence on Basho. Tu Fu’s influence stretched beyond his native China. Matsuo Basho, a seventeenth- century Japanese poet often credited with inventing the haiku form, displayed many thematic similarities to Tu Fu. Basho borrowed various elements of imagery from Tu Fu. Several of them are found in his prose writings of the period preceding his maturity. Others are found in the poetry he composed as he was perfecting his style. The attraction that Tu Fu held for Basho was admitted by him at the time he published a collection of haiku titled Empty Chestnuts. In the preface of this collection, written when Basho was forty years old, he acknowledged the influence of Tu Fu, as well as that of other poets, by saying in regard to his own verses, ‘‘the spirits of Li Po and Tu Fu revive and Han Shan’s Zennism prevails, while Saigyo’s tranquility and elegance are newly explored.’’ Although his self-styled affinity with these four renowned poets might not be appreciated by others, and the ordinary man might regard his poems as ‘‘empty chestnuts’’ (minashiguri) not worth picking up, the poems in Empty Chestnuts presented to Basho the possibility of a new taste and the exploration of a new poetical realm.
The continuing influence of Tu Fu on Basho appears repeatedly in the poetry written by him in the years following the publication of Empty Chestnuts. The poetic accounts of his travels throughout Japan and the verses he penned during periods of seclusion clearly attest to the inspiration he drew from the Chinese poet.
Modern Commentary. Modern commentary often focuses on the implicit philosophy in Tu Fu’s work. Critics also address the way in which Tu Fu explored in his poetry the social issues of his time. Burton Watson has noted that ‘‘whereas most T’ang poets ... expressed their criticisms indirectly through the conventions of the yueh-fu style, borrowing the guise of the soldier or the peasant and setting the poem in some distant era of the past, Tu Fu boldly described in his own words the abuses and sufferings that he and his contemporaries encountered.’’ The personal nature of Tu Fu’s poetry has garnered critical admiration, particularly his poignant descriptions of his own experiences and his meticulous attention to detail in depicting everyday life during the T’ang dynasty.
Responses to Literature
1. Find some examples of historical events that Tu Fu relates in his poetry. Discuss how social upheaval and political instability influenced Tu Fu’s poetry.
2. Read some of Tu Fu’s reminders to the emperor. How do these reflect the author’s Confucianism?
3. Li Po and Tu Fu, both acknowledged as China’s greatest poets, were contemporaries. Discuss how Li Po influenced Tu Fu’s poetry, and vice versa. Do you think they inspired each other to greater poetic heights, or is their work largely independent of the other’s influence?
4. Select and examine the work of a modern poet who deals with a theme found in Tu Fu’s work, such as alienation. How does the modern poet handle the theme differently than Tu Fu? How are the two poets similar in their handling of style and subject, if at all?
Davis, A. R. Tu Fu. New York: Twayne, 1971.
Hung, William. Tu Fu: China’s Greatest Poet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952.
Owen, Stephen. Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics: Omen of the World. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.