Tu Fu (712-770) was a great Chinese poet of the T'ang dynasty. He is known as a poet-historian for his portrayal of the social and political disorders of his time and is also noted for his artistry and craftsmanship.
Born in Kung-hsien, Honan, of a scholar-official family, Tu Fu lost his mother in early childhood. His father, a minor district magistrate, remarried, and the boy lived for some time with his aunt in Loyang, the eastern capital. In his youth he traveled widely in the Yangtze River and Yellow River regions. He first met the poet Li Po in 744 in North China and formed with him a lasting friendship. In 746 Tu Fu went to Ch'ang-an, the capital, in search of an official position but failed to pass the literary examination or to win the patronage of influential courtiers. In 751 he sent to the Emperor a fu (rhymed prose) composition for each of three grand state ceremonials. While the Emperor appreciated Tu Fu's literary talents, he failed to award the poet an office or emolument.
After a long, futile wait in Ch'ang-an, his resources exhausted and his health declining, Tu Fu was offered a minor position at court. Just then, the An Lu-shan rebellion broke out (December 755) and threw the country into chaos. Tu Fu was captured by the rebels, escaped, and led the life of a refugee for some time before he was able to join the new emperor's court in exile. As a reward for his loyalty, he was appointed "Junior Reminder" in attendance upon the Emperor. In late 757 he returned with the court to Ch'ang-an, which had been recovered from the rebels, but did not stay there long. He had offended the Emperor by his candid advice and was banished to a provincial post. He soon gave it up and started in the fall of 759 a long journey away from the capital.
Tu Fu spent the next 9 years (759-768), the most fruitful period of his poetic career, in various cities in Szechwan. He settled down with his family in Ch'eng-tu, the provincial capital, where he built a thatched cottage and led a quiet, contented, though still impoverished life. Occasionally, he had to go from one city to another to seek employment or to escape from uprisings inside the province. For a year or so, he was appointed by Yen Wu, the governor general of Ch'eng-tu district, as military adviser in the governor's headquarters and concurrently assistant secretary in the Board of Works. Upon his patron's death in 765, Tu Fu left Ch'eng-tu for a trip that took him to a number of places along the Yangtze. Three years later he reached Hunan. After having roamed up and down the rivers and lakes there for almost 2 years (768-770), he died of sickness on a boat in the winter of 770.
The rich and manifold experiences in Tu Fu's life went into the making of a great poet. His works reveal his loyalty and love of the country, his aspirations and frustrations, his unbounded sympathy for the sad plight of the common people. He was an eyewitness of the historical events in a critical period that saw a great, prosperous nation ruined by military rebellions and wars with border tribes. Eager to serve the country, Tu Fu was helpless in averting its impending disasters and could only record faithfully in poems his own observations and sentiments. While some of his poems reflect his mood in happier moments, most of them tell of his poverty, his separation from and yearnings for his family, his wretched life during the war, his encounters with refugees, draftees, and recruiting officers. His own sufferings aroused in him a sincere and broad concern for humanity that gave poignancy to his poems.
Tu Fu possesses a remarkable power of description, with which he vividly presents human affairs and natural scenery. He introduces into his poetry an intense, dramatic, and poignant personalism through the use of symbols and images, irony and contrast. He is noted for his occasional sallies into wit and humor, even at despondent times. Above all, he has the ability to transcend the world of reality for the world of imagination. By means of a creative blending of artistic skill, heightened imagination, and deeply felt but well-controlled emotions, Tu Fu attains the height of Chinese poetry. An artist among poets, he excels in a difficult verse-form called lü-shih (regulated verse), of which he is an acknowledged master.
There are several English translations of Tu Fu's poems. Among them are Florence Ayscough, Tu Fu: The Autobiography of a Chinese Poet (1929) and Travels of a Chinese Poet: Tu Fu, Guest of Rivers and Lakes (1934); Rewi Alley, Tu Fu: Selected Poems (1962); and David Hawkes, A Little Primer of Tu Fu (1967). The best book on the poet is William Hung, Tu Fu: China's Greatest Poet (1952), a scholarly work on the poet's life with numerous illustrative poems arranged in chronological order.