An artist's interpretation of what Du Fu might have looked like (there are no original portraits)

An artist’s interpretation of what Du Fu might have looked like (there are no original portraits)

April is poetry month and, to celebrate, here is a poem by the great Tang dynasty poet, Du Fu (712–770).  Du Fu was the son of a minor scholar-official and he dedicated his youth to the rigorous study of Confucian philosophy, history and poetry.  However, when the moment of truth came, Du Fu failed the civil service examination despite his tremendous erudition.  This failure stunned Du Fu (and every subsequent generation of Chinese scholars) to such an extent that many suggest the Tang-era test was crooked.  The rest of Du Fu’s life he moved from place to place trying to find a place to fit in after failing the one thing that mattered.  His final years were spent struggling to survive the cataclysmic events of the An Lushan Rebellion (which devastated China and left huge swaths of the population dead).

Du Fu’s life does not sound like the model of happy success, but history judged him very differently.  Although his work was initially dismissed and garnered little attention even in the era immediately after his death, in remained in circulation and then suddenly began to grow in popularity.  Each generation regarded it more highly than the previous and it became worked into the aesthetic and philosophical framework of Chinese society. Today Du Fu’s works of poetry (from across all classical Chinese genres) are among the most famous works of Chinese literature.  His poetry has had a unique seminal influence on almost all subsequent poetry and he has been canonized as one of the greatest Chinese writers.
Here is a short poem which demonstrates the austere vigor of his pen.  Notice how much longer the English version is than the Chinese original! 
Du Fu

遲日江山麗
春風花草香
泥融飛燕子
沙暖睡鴛鴦

In late sun, the river and hills are beautiful,
The spring breeze bears the fragrance of flowers and grass.
The mud has thawed, and swallows fly around,
On the warm sand, mandarin ducks are sleeping.

(translated by Mark Alexander)