Authors: Du Fu

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Chinese poet

Author Works


Approximately 1,450 poems of varying lengths, collected through the years in frequently revised and reprinted anthologies and collections such as Tang Shi san bai shou, 1763 (The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology, 1929), and Chuan Tang Shi, 1706. An English-language collection is Tu Fu: Selected Poems, 1962


For more than a millennium, Du Fu (doo foo), or Tu Fu, has enjoyed virtually unquestioned stature as China’s greatest poet; he occupies a unique position comparable to that of William Shakespeare in English-speaking countries. What is known about Du Fu’s life has been largely reconstructed from his poetry; he seems to have been a brilliant poet who spent most of his life vainly seeking court preferment. His family, although in straitened circumstances, was a notable one with royal, military, and literary connections. A distant ancestor was the general Tu Yü (222-284), and a more recent one the poet Tu Shen-yen (d. 708).{$I[AN]9810001621}{$I[A]Du Fu}{$S[A]Tu Fu;Du Fu}{$I[geo]CHINA;Du Fu}{$I[tim]0712;Du Fu}

Ink drawing of Chinese poet Du Fu.

(K. Kurnizki)

Du Fu’s education is unrecorded, but as he took the imperial examinations, he must have enjoyed the Chinese Confucian equivalent of a classical education, studying the Four Books (compiled c. 500-200 b.c.e.) and the Five Classics (compiled c. 1000-500 b.c.e.). Later, as a military man, he would have known Sun Tzu’s Art of War (c. 500 b.c.e.).

After an apparently happy and brilliant childhood as a literary prodigy, Du Fu somehow managed to bungle the first real step to lifetime success and personal prosperity: He failed the all-important chih-shih (“entered scholar”) examination in 736, which effectively destroyed hopes of an official career.

Briefly returning home to face his family, Du Fu then began the pattern of much of the rest of his life–journeys, minor preferments, lapses in favor, returns home, and temporary prosperity followed by bouts of poverty. Throughout these turns of fortune, he composed poetry and, although a follower of the Confucianist discipline, drank heavily when he got the chance. In the official, military, and literary environments in which he spent most of his life, he often had the chance.

The most famous and productive of his friendships was that with Li Po, Tu-Fu’s poetic antithesis and the only Chinese poet who can bear comparison to him. A number of Du Fu’s compositions refer fondly to this friendship, the best-known being the two poems titled “Meng Li Po” (“Dreaming of Li Po”). Returning to the capital Ch’ang-an in 746, Du Fu’s expectations were raised a year later by the announced special examinations to detect people of unusual ability, but here he was the victim of politics: The heir to the throne, Li Lin-fu, saw to it that nobody passed, and Du Fu had to resort to his writing brush to gain favor. Finally he managed to impress the emperor with formal poems on the three great rites, and he was promised a position. Probably on the strength of this he felt secure enough to marry and begin a family in 752. By this time Du Fu had developed a realistic and somewhat pessimistic attitude, as demonstrated in his “Ping-che hsing,” (“Ballad of the War Carts”).

The next year he was examined again and passed, but unforeseen political complications spoiled his success. The aging Emperor Hsüan-tsung was distracted by a young beauty (alluded to in the “Li-ren hsing” (“Ballad of Lovely Women”) and allowed his court to deteriorate. Then the An Lu-shan Rebellion of 755 forced the abdication of the emperor in favor of his son. Once Du Fu was captured and held by the rebel forces. Near this time he experienced extreme poverty; in his “Wu pai tzu” (“Five Hundred Words”), he writes with moving conciseness of returning home to discover that his youngest son has died of starvation. After being briefly reinstated, Du Fu failed to impress the new emperor, and in 758 he was banished from the court and given a minor position in Hua-chou, which he resigned shortly afterward. There followed another period of travels.

After a brief and undistinguished military career in the mid-760’s, Du Fu was able to recover his fortunes enough to acquire a farm in K’uei-chou, building the “thatched hut” which figures in some of his finest poems. In 768, however, the ever-restless (and now seriously ill) poet began traveling south, and he spent the remainder of his days wandering and writing poetry, supported by various friends and patrons. He died in 770 near T’an-chou, the result of ill health and (according to popular legend) immoderate consumption of beef and wine after a period of fasting.

It is no exaggeration to say that Du Fu revolutionized Chinese poetry: He definitively mastered the old forms, perfected the new ones, expanded its subject matter and expression, and rendered all subsequent poetry imitation of or reaction to his own. Although his reputation has held for more than a thousand years in the East, his appreciation in the West has been hampered by the difficulty of his poetry and the near impossibility of adequate translation.

BibliographyChou, Eva Shan. Reconsidering Tu Fu: Literary Greatness and Cultural Context. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Chou examines the styles and techniques of Du Fu’ poetry as well as his literary legacy. Contains some translations of poems. Bibliography and index.Chou, Eva Shan. “Tu Fu’s ‘General Ho’ Poems: Social Obligation and Poetic Response.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 60, no. 1 (June, 2000): 165-204. These two sets of poems from early in Du Fu’s career follow the pattern of estate poems: an arrival poem, exit poem, and central poems describing the host and the estate. Chou discusses these works as a product of the “social, cultural, and economic forces of their time.”Chou, Eva Shan. “Tu Fu’s Social Conscience: Compassion and Topicality in His Poetry.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 51, no. 1 (June, 1991): 5-53. This essay presents Du Fu as a writer who frequently unites technical precision with a sense of seriousness and high moral purpose. Chou analyses Du Fu’s choice of subjects, noting the moral stance that appears both in works about ordinary people and trivial details as well as works about politics, service to the state or rebellion. The article includes a detailed discussion of the types of poetic realism in his poetry.Chou, Eva Shan. “Allusion and Periphrasis as Modes of Poetry in Tu Fu’s ‘Eight Laments.’” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 45, no. 1 (June, 1985): 77-128. The article examines how narrative pace and lyricism are replaced by allusion and periphrasis in the “Laments.” While the subject is technical, Chou provides detailed explanations and examples to allow the reader to understand the material in the article.Cooper, Arthur, comp. and trans. Li Po and Tu Fu: Poems Selected and Translated with an Introduction and Notes. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1973. The translations are generally excellent, and the extensive background material on the history of Chinese poetry and literature is helpful. Discusses Du Fu’ connection with Li Po.Davis, A. R. Tu Fu. New York: Twayne, 1971. General and concise, addressing simply the often complicated problems of form and theme.Du Fu. The Selected Poems of Du Fu. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. A collection of Du Fu’ poems, translated into English by a noted specialist on China.Du Fu. The Selected Poems of Tu Fu. Translated by David Hinton. New York: New Directions, 1989. A collection of Du Fu’ poetic works, translated into English.Hawkes, David. A Little Primer of Tu Fu. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967. Written for readers who know little Chinese. The volume contains the texts of thirty-five of Du Fu’s poems in Chinese characters and Pinyin Romanization, with descriptions in English of titles, subjects, and poetic forms followed by exegeses and translations. Can be employed as a very useful textbook.Hung, William. Tu Fu: China’s Greatest Poet. New York: Russell and Russell, 1969. The most valuable study in English. Clear and highly readable, it includes a volume of notes and incorporates translations of 374 poems.Lattimore, David. “Tu Fu.” In The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, edited by William H. Nienhauser, Jr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. An excellent short essay on Du Fu’s career and his qualities as a poet.McCraw, David R. Du Fu’ Laments from the South. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992. An examination of Du Fu’ travels in Sichuan and his poetic output. Bibliography and indexes.Owen, Stephen. The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T’ang. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. Includes an excellent chapter on Du Fu, illustrated with fine translations.Pine, Red, trans. Poems of the Masters: China’ Classic Anthology of T’ang and Sung Dynasty Verse. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 2003. A collection of poetry from the Tang and Song Dynasties that includes the work of Du Fu. Indexes.Seaton, J. P., and James Cryer, trans. Bright Moon, Perching Bird: Poems by Li Po and Tu Fu. Scranton, Pa.: Harper & Row, 1987. This work, part of the Wesleyan Poetry in Translation series, features the works of Li Bo and Du Fu, two Tang poets. Provides some information on Tang Dynasty poetry.Seth, Vikram, trans. Three Chinese Poets: Translations of Poems by Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992. A collection of poems by Du Fu, Li Bo, and Wang Wei. Commentary provides useful information.
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