杜甫 Du Fu: Genius thwarted…and refined

Sometimes, no matter which school one goes to, what kind of education he receives, or even if he be a natural genius whom ‘noone can possibly imagine the depths’ of; life plays its cruel jokes and the heavens withhold in its petty jealousy.

杜甫/Du Fu, may be the one man in chinese history to perfectly epitomise the chinese sayings:
怀才不遇 – To be filled with talent but unable to meet with the opportunity use it.
天妒英才 – The heavens are jealous of the mortal’s talents, and places hardships before the man, thwarting him at every corner
(or an unexpected and early death; fortunately for latter generations, not the case here with Du Fu).

Du Fu came close to winning high office several times but was always thwarted one way or another.

Once, during the holding of an imperial worship ritual and ceremony (special periods which allowed courtiers and officials the opportunity to submit essays directly to the Emperor outside of the usual officious conduits), Du Fu wrote and submitted his essay 《进三大礼赋表》, which so impressed Emperor Xuanzong that he wanted to find out which of his courtiers wrote it. When it was reported that the essay was in fact not authored by a court official, but was penned by an impoverished scholar subsisting as a 賓客/guest under the patronage of a nobleman, the emperor ordered the prime minister to invite Du Fu to be examined by a galley of court scholars to ascertain his talent, and presumably to appoint him to office.
The prescient prime minister, who had already embarrassed himself before the Emperor when he could not understand and explain many parts of Du Fu’s magnificent but dense essay, of course will not allow a potential threat to himself to enter the imperial court so easily.
He carried out Du Fu’s examination himself personally, and asked Du Fu to first recite his long essay in full. Du Fu replied that he could not. Then the prime minister asked Du Fu to just recite any of the three parts of his essay. Du Fu again replied that he could not, but he could explain the meanings, intentions and allusions of his essay. But the prime minister cut him off and ended the examination there; later reporting to the Emperor that if Du Fu could not even recite words he supposedly wrote, he must surely be a fake and had plagiarised words which were not his own.

But perhaps, the abject poverty and near-starvation, bitterness bleakness and strife placed upon Du Fu’s life, were not cruel jokes and tempests sent by fate, but rather heaven’s finest bitter-sweet gifts of trials and tribulations; and the only way for Du Fu, though battered worn and scarred, to be refined from an eager young talent, to a true and immortal poet-sage.

Here is one of Du Fu’s more well-known poems, written in his middle years, but still seeking after government office (and increasingly desperate to provide for his family). At this period, Du Fu could no longer afford for his entire family to remain in the capital city while he looked for work, and so had settled his family in a county where a relative lived, while he remained in the capital. The poem’s title, basically describes an early example of a suburban-city commute, and may be transliterated as: Five Hundred Words about my journey from the capital to Fengxian county.


作者: 杜甫





by Du Fu

Imagine a man in commonplace clothes,
advancing years,

impractical and even stupid,
struggling on

he wanted to rank with sages
instead he has white hair and failure

he’ll stick with his goals, though, until
they close him into his coffin

a poet who writes from the heart,
anxious about the poor

for which his fellow scholars laugh at him!
well, I will not stop singing

even though I dream
of traveling far away

I have to think the emperor still cares
about this realm of his

the sunflower turns to the sun
that is its very nature

the ant seeks security
retreats to its own burrow

why should it imitate the whale
trying to swallow the seas?

but oh I am sick of begging
whining about my obscurity

I know it all ends in dust
and I think about famous hermits

and the only things that relieve my heart
are poetry and drinking


Year’s end, the grasses withered
a great wind scouring the high ridges

in bitter cold at midnight I set out
along the imperial highway

sharp frost, my belt snaps
my fingers are too stiff to tie it

around dawn I pass
the emperor’s winter palace

army banners against the sky
the ground tramped smooth by troops

thick steam from the hot green springs
imperial guards rub elbows

cabinet ministers live it up
the music drifts through the wintry landscape

the hot baths here are for important people
nothing for common folks

the silk the courtiers wear
was woven by poor women

while soldiers beat their husbands
demanding tribute

of course our emperor is generous
he wants the best for us

we have to blame his ministers
when government is bad

plenty of good people at the court
must be especially worried

when they see the palace gold plate
carted off by royal relations

women like goddesses are dancing inside
all silk and perfume

guests in sable furs
music of pipes and fiddles

camel-pad broth is served
with frosted oranges, pungent tangerines

behind those red gates
meat and wine are left to spoil

outside lie the bones
of people who starved and froze

luxury and misery a few feet apart–
my heart aches to think about it!


But now I must go on
to cross the Wei and Jing

the ferry landing has been moved
because of floods

one bridge is still intact
above the surging waters

thinking ahead to my wife
trying to cope with this weather

desperate to be with my family
I arrive at last to learn

my little son has died
probably from sheer hunger

and I stand and weep in the street
the neighbors crowd round me, weeping

my shame overwhelms me, a father
who couldn’t feed his family

I who have never paid taxes
never been conscripted

I realize I’ve had an easy life
and I think again of the poor

losing their farms, sons sent to war
no end to their griefs

till my sorrow becomes a mountain
whose peak I cannot see.


[footnote by the translator, David Young]:
Written in 755, on the eve of the [An LuShan] rebellion. Du Fu had settled his family in Fengxian and had made several journeys back and forth to the capital. This record of one of them represents a new departue on his poetry. He is quite direct in his criticism of the court’s luxury. His fellow feeling for the poor, which his courtier friends have apparently mocked, is explicitly connected here with his own grief at losing his child. He feels that his own ambition has been self-destructive. No poem of this kind existed in Chinese poetry before this; it is more personal, more searching, and more comprehensive than anything that preceeded it.

Very interesting recent translation by David Young. His “syntactic” and “middle-way” style between prose and verse is worth reading, even if it misses some of the actual context of the original chinese.

And the last and third part of the above poem, still as always, so sad…
Du Fu’s grief, lightly expressed but so painfully felt; and a ‘resounding’ exclamation for the rest of the poem.

[After this period, Du Fu’s poems get increasingly shorter, his choice of words and imagery more sparse and yet more succint, and in some cases, tightly-bursting(an opposing paradox, I know) with emotion. An example: 春望/Spring Scene]

Du Fu:



5 thoughts on “杜甫 Du Fu: Genius thwarted…and refined

  1. Pingback: Amazing Poem « Masteroftheuniverse’s Weblog

  2. Don,

    Yes. Being unable to provide for his son, and thus, playing a part in his son’s untimely death must have hurt him immensely.

    I did read the other poem, Don, in a site which had 300 tang poems. Beautiful. It is indeed surprising that his talent was not recognized in his own lifetime.


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