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Du Fu:Early Life

Du Fu: Early Life

Du Fu was born in the year 712 AD in the village of Yaohuan, east of the city Gongxian, modern day province of Henan. Although generations of the Du clan had lived for many years in Duling, a southeast section of the capital city of Chang’an, Du Fu was born near Gongxian because his great grandfather was the city mayor.

The thirteenth great grandfather of Du Fu was a very famous and successful army general during the turbulent times of the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316). He had defeated the nation state of Wu, and was therefore granted a very large area of land called Jingmen in the current province of Hubei. General Du spent considerable time and resources to improve the land by building flood control projects and defense works. This greatly improved the living standards of the people. The general was also a very literate man. He wrote a famous book on astronomy, warfare tactics, and how to build water projects. Du Fu held a lot of respect for this ancestor, and made him a lifetime role model.

Du Fu’s grandfather, Du Shen, obtained a government position later in life. He wrote a lot about the many poems that were written by the Du ancestors.  Du Fu grew up with poems posted up on the walls everywhere. He grew up in a rich, literate and cultured environment. Du read throughout his childhood. His first poem was about a phoenix that was born out of the ashes. This allegory became Du Fu’s recurrent theme throughout his life.

At the age of nineteen, Du Fu left his hometown to travel around the old nation state of Wu and the Jiangnan region. After six years, Du returned home in order to take the regional imperial exam, the Jinshi. Not content with being just a local official, he again went out to do some more traveling. This time he went through the province of Shandong.

Around the year 742, at the age of thirty, Du Fu was in Dongdu, near the second capital city of Luoyang. Here he met the famous poet Li Bai. Li was on his way home after finding no success or satisfaction with the palace life in the capital of Chang’an. He also met the poet Gao Shi here as well. They all had a great time using what gold Li Bai had left from his palace earnings and gifts. Du Fu did not really understand why Li Bai was so cold and turned off by his time in the palace. At this time Du Fu was very idealistic and optimistic, thinking that the world was his oyster to open and enjoy.

At the age of 28, the year was 740, and Du Fu was headed for the capital city of Chang’an to sit for the imperial examinations. He stayed in the government supplied accommodations organized by your provincial hometown. This year the Prime Minister flunked everyone who took the test. It was his first year in this position, and most likely no one passed because he wanted to consolidate his position of power.

It was at this time that Yang Guifei, and her family, come to power and prominence within the imperial court. For the next ten years Du Fu attempted to make the necessary social connections in order to obtain a government position. He wrote a letter to the emperor offering to write a book about the Tang Dynasty’s history. This offer made the Prime Minister very angry. Perhaps as a result, Du Fu finally got his initial government job, a form of exile, to the city of Fengxian. The palace elite were not of the mind to hear any criticism.

But first he traveled home to his family. Along the way he visited Warm Springs, the emperor’s weekend spa getaway. At this time most of his poems were sad and satirical. On the other hand his friend, Li Bai, wrote poems about the government and trying to obtain a position.



Jiangnan: Literally means south of the river.  A region in the present day province of Zhejiang, south of the Changjiang (Yangzi River).

Jinshi:(进士)Literally means advanced scholar, and therefore was a successful imperial examinee.  See this website post “Tang Dynasty: Education and Examination Systems”.

Chang’an and Luoyang: Capital cities during the Tang Dynasty.

Li Bai: (701-762) Famous poet during the Tang Dynasty.  Along with Du Fu, they are considered by many to be the best poets in Chinese history.  Ther are several poems and biographical information of Li Bai posted on this website.

Gao Shi: (ca. 704-765) Well known poet of the Tang Dynasty.

Yang Guifei: Famous and favorite concubine of Tang emperor Xuangzong.  Many historians consider her as a prime cause in the fall of the dynasty to the rebel forces of An Lushan in 756.  In the coming weeks, this website will post a poem all about her and the emperor titled “The Long Song of Remorse” by Bai Juyi.

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