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Who Was Du Fu?

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  • Written By: Diane Goettel
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 December 2016
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Du Fu, whose name is also sometimes spelled “Tu Fu” was an important poet in China during the Tang Dynasty. The Tang Dynasty lasted from 18 June 618 to 4 June 907, and Du Fu lived from 712 to 770. He is generally thought of as one of the most important poets in the canon of Chinese literature.

Although Du Fu is best known for his poetry, his pursuits were not purely literary. In fact, one of Du Fu’s dearest hopes was to help China as a civil servant. However, this dream was never realized. In fact, he lived during a time of great unrest of China. Du Fu’s life was marked by the An Lushan Rebellion, which lasted from 755 to 763. The An Lushan Rebellion is also known as the Tianbao Rebellion and the An Shi Rebellion.

Because of both the volume and influence of his writing, Du Fu has been hailed among Western readers as the Eastern Virgil, Ovid, or Shakespeare. Since his death, approximately fifteen hundred of his poems have survived and been handed down through the generations. Furthermore, not only have his poems been enjoyed in translation by Western readers, but they have also been enjoyed by other Asian nations, particularly Japan. Chinese critics have referred to Du Fu as both the "Saint of the Poem," or Shīshèng, and "The Poetic Historian," or Shīshǐ.

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Two major themes in Du Fu’s poetry are morality and history. For this reason, the works are not only of literary interest; philosophers and historians alike have found useful information and ideas in his works. Du Fu wrote poems on military tactics and the goings-on within the government. He even wrote poems to the emperor which included words of advice. One of his most famous works on moral engagement is also one of his earliest works. Titled “The Song of the Wagons,” this poetic work is about a soldier struggling with the suffering that he had to endure in order to fulfill his duties.

Du Fu’s poems also include information on his personal history. Without the information within his poems, we would know very little about the early life of the poet. It is known that Du Fu knew and was friends with another famous poet of the era, Li Po, whose name is also sometimes spelled “Li Bai.” Du Fu was much younger than Li Po when they met and not nearly as successful. However, it is very interesting to note that two of the most famous poets in Chinese literature lived during the same time and, in fact, knew one another.

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