Life and Career. Known as the “Sage of Poetry,” Du Fu was born into an aristocratic family in Gong County, Henan Province. Given a strict, traditional Confucian education, he wrote his first poems at age seven and was associating with the literati by the time he was fourteen. Du’s traditional education made him a gentleman with great integrity and high moral standards while sharpening his appetite for success. After he turned twenty he traveled extensively in China to see life firsthand. When he was thirty-three he met Li Bai, who was already a nationally known poet, and thereafter maintained a strong admiration for his older contemporary. During the 740s and early 750s he held a series of minor government posts. But during the political and military turmoil associated with the An Lushan revolt that threatened the Tang dynasty around 755, he was often jobless and hungry. He eventually died on a tour boat in 770 at age fifty-nine.
Poetry. Some 1,400 poems by Du have survived. The few extant poems from his early years are confident and heroic, far different from the pessimistic poems he wrote later. The turning point in his poetry came with “The Ballad of the Army Wagons,” the first poem of the Tang era (618-907) that overtly criticized a government policy, in this case conscription. Although still loyal to the Tang government, Du became increasingly aware of the terrible sufferings of the lower class and expressed his concerns for the fate of the nation in “Going Out to the Frontier” and in the groups of poems titled “Three Officers” and “Three Partings.” His “Ballad of Beautiful Ladies” and “Washing Weapons” exposed greed and corruption in the highest ranks of the ruling class. Even nature poems such as “Night Thoughts Aboard a Boat” express his disappointment in the failures of Chinese society. Du was also a master of style who had a gift for finding precisely the right word to express his message. He once commented, “I won’t have peace even after my death if people do not marvel at my words!”
Dorothy Hoobler, Thomas Hoobler, and Victoria Bruck, Chinese Portraits (Austin: Raintree/Steck Vaughn, 1992).