Last night I went to a party for English majors at the Old Campus of Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences. Various performances of song, dance and even poetry were demonstrated. I was struck by how serious and beautiful were the performances. There was little of the sophomoric stunts one sees in American campus life. It reminded me of the high level of culture in the Tang Dynastry where poetry was used as the foundation of civil exams. Life in the Tang Dynasty was serious, ordered, and based on examination. These examinations were based on artistic achievement. Poetry was considered the highest form of academic expression and suitability for civil government. Can you imagine a government today using poetry as a measure of one’s qualification for service? I could see some of this Chinese history in the performances. It was serious, artistic, and poetic and very much like the life of these students.
A chief example of the high level of society is the life story of Tu Fu Born in Kung-hsien, Honan, of a scholar-official family. Tu Fu lost his mother in early childhood. His father, a minor district official, remarried, and the boy lived for some time with his aunt in Loyang, the eastern capital. As a youth he traveled widely in the Yangtze River and Yellow River regions. He first met the poet Li Po (c. 701–762) in 744 in North China and formed a lasting friendship with him. In 746 Tu Fu went to Ch’ang-an, the capital to take examinations for an official position but he failed to pass the literary examination. He applied again in 751 he sent a fu (rhymed prose) composition to the emperor for each of three grand state ceremonials. H e failed again and was not awarded an office or payment. He waited in Ch’angan four years and his health declined. Finally he was offered a minor position at court just as the An Lushan rebellion broke out (December 755). The country was thrown into chaos when western rebels tried to overthrow the T’ang Dynasty. The rebels captured Tu Fu, but he escaped. He lived the life of a refugee before he was able to join the new emperor’s court in exile. He wrote the following poem during this period describing the trauma of war.
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.
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 taken back from the rebels, but he did not stay there long. He had offended the emperor with his advice and was banished to a remote border post. He soon gave it up and in the fall of 759 started a long journey. Tu Fu spent the next nine years (759–768), the most fruitful period of his poetic career, in various cities in Sichan, China. He settled down with his family in Ch’eng-tu, the provincial capital, where he built a thatched cottage and led a quiet, happy, though still extremely poor life. Occasionally he had to go from one city to another to seek employment or to escape uprisings within 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 assistant secretary in the Board of Works. In 765, Tu Fu left for a trip that took him to a number of places along the Yangtze River. After three years he reached Hunan. He died of sickness on a boat in the winter of 770. Tu Fu’s works reveal his loyalty and love of the country, his dreams and frustrations, and his sympathy for the common people. He was an eyewitness to the historical events in a critical period that saw a great, prosperous nation ruined by military rebellions and wars with border tribes. Tu Fu was helpless in stopping its disasters and could only faithfully record in poems his observations and feelings. He tells of his poverty, his separation from and longings for his family, his terrible life during the war, and his encounters with refugees, draftees, and recruiting officers. Tu Fu possesses a remarkable power of description. He introduces an intense, dramatic, and touching personalism through the use of symbols and images, irony and contrast. An artist among poets, he excelled in a difficult verse-form called lü-shih (regulated verse), of which he is considered a master.
The civil examination system perhaps made Tu Fu a better poet. It was his family tradition and honor that he followed. Also he persisted until he passed his exams late in life even though he never achieved a high position. Finally it was his experiences that that gave him the rich sources of images for his poetry.
Last night I saw this persistence, beauty, and sense of striving for honor in these students.
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.
Davis, A. R. Tu Fu. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971.
Tu Fu: The Autobiography of a Chinese Poet. Edited by Florence Ayscough. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929.
Tu Fu: Selected Poems. Edited by Rewi Alley. Peking, China: Foreign Language Press, 1990.