The Chinese Poet, Tu Fu Biography

A biography of Tu Fu, one of China's most revered poets, who's eloquent poetry chronicles life in China's tumultuous 8th century.

Chinese poetry is much different than its Western counterpart. Each Chinese character is a word/picture. Because the characters have remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years, each holds an emotional charge and racial memory. The characters cascade down the page, each painting a picture, evoking an emotion. Each character builds on the last and acts as a foundation for the next. As you gaze upon the poem, you see the symbol for river. In the column next to the symbol for river is a snowy egret feeding among the rushes. As you enter deeper into the maze/poem, you hear the clatter of oxcart wheels on hard-packed dirt and smell the sweat of the animals as they pass. You see the sorrowful faces of conscripts trudging behind the cart. The quality of the author's brushstroke imparts a nuance of meaning that is further enhanced by the quality of ink used, and the paper itself creates a subtext of thought. Chinese poetry is a three dimensional living thing that leaps off the page and enrobes you in its images and textures, leaving the reader with a memory that will be built upon by future poets.

Arguably, the master of this type of writing was Tu Fu. Born to a literary family in the Hunan Province of China in 712, his family's social position assured Tu Fu a traditional Confucian education. Perhaps through intrigue, or because of his radical views, Tu Fu failed an Imperial test in 736, which, if he had passed, would have guaranteed him a civil service post and a life of relative security. After failing the test, he traveled throughout China and earned a reputation as a humanistic poet well grounded in reality. It was during this time that he met his idol, the poet Li Po, a Taoist who celebrated the virtues of love, wine, and nature. The two traveled together for a while and Tu Fu dabbled in Taoism, but was unable to balance the world he lived in with the disassociation of Taoism, and soon returned to the capital and Confucianism.

Tu Fu was well regarded during the 740s, even though he held no official position, had no money, and failed a second Imperial examination. In the mid 750s he sought and attained Imperial recognition in the form of a minor appointment, married, and acquired some land.

A Guest

I've had asthma now for years. But here

Beside this river, our ch'i-sited

Home is new. Even simple noise scarce,

Its healing joy and ease are uncluttered.

When someone visits our thatch house, I

Call the kids to straighten my farmer's cap,

And from the sparse garden, gather young

Vegetables "" a small handful of friendship.

In 755 the An Lu-shan Rebellion, which would eventually overthrow the fading T'ang dynasty, threw Tu Fu's life into turmoil. The rebels took the capital city of Changan and held him there for some time, separating him from his pregnant wife and children.

Advent of Spring

The country torn in war, but hills and rivers remain,

The city is deep with grass and trees in spring.

Sorrowing over the times, tears shed over the flowers,

Reluctant of departing, my heart is startled by birds.

Beacon fires have been burning for three months,

A letter from home worth ten thousand ounces of gold.

White hairs become fewer as I scratch,

And growing too thin to hold a hairpin.

Tu Fu escaped the rebel forces in 757, the same year Advent of Spring was written, and joined the exiled government as a censor. Some of his suggestions to the emperor were not welcomed, possibly because he presented them with a complete lack of tact, and he was relieved of his post. Several of Tu Fu's children died of starvation during the separation. Tu Fu was essentially homeless the rest of his life, traveling the countryside and starving a great deal of the time. He was said to have been stranded on a sand bar during a flood, and after many days he was saved and taken to his rescuer's house to recuperate where he was recognized and honored. Legend has it that he consumed too much food and drink and died suddenly from overindulgence.

Tu Fu's work is tinged with sadness and loss, longing and outrage, but also a deep understanding and appreciation of life despite its hardships.

The Little Rain

Oh! she is good, the little rain!

and well she knows our need

Who cometh in the time of spring

to aid the sun-drawn seed;

She wanders with a friendly wind

through silent nights unseen,

The furrows feel her happy tears,

and lo! the land is green.

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