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Tu Fu

(712-770 / Gong County / China)

Biography of Tu Fu

Tu Fu poet

Most of what is known of Du Fu’s life comes from his own poems. His paternal grandfather was Du Shenyan, a noted politician and poet during the reign of Empress Wu. He was born in 712 in Gong county, near Luoyang, Henan province. In later life he considered himself to belong to the capital city of Chang'an, ancestral hometown of the Du family.

Du Fu's mother died shortly after he was born, and he was partially raised by his aunt. He had an elder brother, who died young. He also had three half brothers and one half sister, to whom he frequently refers in his poems, although he never mentions his stepmother.

As the son of a minor scholar-official, his youth was spent on the standard education of a future civil servant: study and memorisation of the Confucian classics of philosophy, history and poetry. He later claimed to have produced creditable poems by his early teens, but these have been lost.

In the early 730s he travelled in the Jiangsu/Zhejiang area; his earliest surviving poem, describing a poetry contest, is thought to date from the end of this period, around 735. In that year he travelled to Chang'an to take the civil service exam but was unsuccessful, to his surprise and that of centuries of later critics. Hung concludes that he probably failed because his prose style at the time was too dense and obscure, while Chou suggests that his failure to cultivate connections in the capital may have been to blame. After this failure he went back to travelling, this time around Shandong and Hebei.

His father died around 740. Du Fu would have been allowed to enter the civil service because of his father's rank, but he is thought to have given up the privilege in favour of one of his half brothers. He spent the next four years living in the Luoyang area, fulfilling his duties in domestic affairs.

In the autumn of 744 he met Li Bai (Li Po) for the first time, and the two poets formed a somewhat one-sided friendship: Du Fu was by some years the younger, while Li Bai was already a poetic star. We have twelve poems to or about Li Bai from the younger poet, but only one in the other direction. They met again only once, in 745.

In 746 he moved to the capital in an attempt to resurrect his official career. He participated in a second exam the following year, but all the candidates were failed by the prime minister (apparently in order to prevent the emergence of possible rivals). Thereafter he never again attempted the examinations, instead petitioning the emperor directly in 751, 754 and probably again in 755. He married around 752, and by 757 the couple had had five children—three sons and two daughters—but one of the sons died in infancy in 755. From 754 he began to have lung problems (probably asthma), the first of a series of ailments which dogged him for the rest of his life. It was in that year that Du Fu was forced to move his family due to the turmoil of a famine brought about by massive floods in the region.

In 755 he finally received an appointment as Registrar of the Right Commandant's office of the Crown Prince's Palace. Although this was a minor post, in normal times it would have been at least the start of an official career. Even before he had begun work, however, the position was swept away by events.

Luoyang, the region of his birthplace, was recovered by government forces in the winter of 762, and in the spring of 765 Du Fu and his family sailed down the Yangtze, apparently with the intention of making their way back there. They travelled slowly, held up by his ill-health (by this time he was suffering from poor eyesight, deafness and general old age in addition to his previous ailments). They stayed in Kuizhou (now Baidicheng, Chongqing) at the entrance to the Three Gorges for almost two years from late spring 766. This period was Du Fu's last great poetic flowering, and here he wrote 400 poems in his dense, late style. In autumn 766 Bo Maolin became governor of the region: he supported Du Fu financially and employed him as his unofficial secretary.

In March 768 he began his journey again and got as far as Hunan province, where he died in Tanzhou (now Changsha) in November or December 770, in his 58th year. He was survived by his wife and two sons, who remained in the area for some years at least. His last known descendant is a grandson who requested a grave inscription for the poet from Yuan Zhen in 813.

Hung summarises his life by concluding that, "He appeared to be a filial son, an affectionate father, a generous brother, a faithful husband, a loyal friend, a dutiful official, and a patriotic subject."

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PoemHunter.com Updates

Dreaming of Li Po

After the separation of death one can eventually swallow back one's grief, but
the separation of the living is an endless, unappeasable anxiety. From
pestilent Chiang-nan no news arrives of the poor exile. That my old friend
should come into my dream shows how constantly he is in my thoughts. I fear
that this is not the soul of a living man: the journey is so immeasurably far.
When your soul left, the maple woods were green: on its return the passes were
black with night. Lying now enmeshe

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