Du Fu (712 – 770) is the one part of the Tang Poetic Trinity I’ve been holding back – partly because he is my favourite of the three. While the three contemporary masters perhaps didn’t see it as such, they all lived through an event which would prove a watershed of history – the An-Shi Rebellion (756 – 763), a seven-year revolt named after its two leaders which tore the Tang Dynasty apart at its very peak and undermined the central government fatally. Only Du Fu would survive the calamity; Wang died in 761, and Li in 762.
The way the civil war treated each of the three men, though, perhaps best reflects their character. Wang, captured by the rebels, somehow could not be persuaded to join them; then the Imperial Court suspected him of that exact defection, but were somehow persuaded that he was innocent. So, both sides having washed off his back like water, he returned to his Buddhist life, and remained so even as his titles and ranks were gradually restored to him. The calm within him had carried him through even this calamity.
Li, ever on the move, kept on the move during the war, and was also accused of treason and nearly put to death. Eventually he was exiled to a distant corner of the empire, but even this trip to the Tang version of Siberia proved just another trip in the spirited poet’s life, as he meandered through the realm meeting friends, writing poems and getting smashed. There was no dampening his spirit; he was on the road; he was wild and could not be tamed.
Du Fu, too, was forced into wandering, moving to Chengdu in Sichuan, where the Tang government-in-exile was. But as his nature was heavy, so his journeys were slow, full of pauses and ponderous. He had family to take care of; he did not have the spirit of Li Bai, or the calm of Wang Wei. What he had, more than either of them, was a sharp ear and a sharp eye – and plenty to watch and listen to.
The Meandering River lay to the south of Chang’an, and during better times was a renowned scenic area for all the well-heeled and literate of the capital. The two poems below, however, were not written in better times; they were composed in 758, in the midst of the Rebellion.
Du Fu had escaped Chang’an when it was captured by rebels in 756; in 757, Tang forces recaptured it. But a year was enough to unmake the entire world around the capital, as Du Fu would know – he had been held in Chang’an for months before escaping to join the government-in-exile. Perhaps it was the tenacity of nature (as he noted in another poem) which led him to visit the Meandering River; perhaps it was that the human world had done its best to reject him – the court he had risked death to rejoin, shuttling through mountains twice, had continuously sidelined and neglected him. Either way, he came and he wrote.