Service or Reclusion: Tu Fu's Confucian Dilemma

Tu Fu (or Du Fu, 712-770) is considered China's greatest poet, recognized for his lyricism, sentiment, use of precise images and metaphors, his treatment of self, ambition, war, culture, and fate. But perhaps Tu Fu's most pointed theme is the classic dilemma of the intelligent and the sensitive: service or seclusion, duty versus reclusion.

This central dilemma is especially relevant to the adherent of Confucianism in ancient and medieval China, with its emphasis on the scholar or "gentleman" acculturated into a lifetime of loyalty and service to the emperor and state, but also charged with a strong sense of ethics. In the Analects, Confucius writes: "What I call a great minister is one who will only serve the emperor when it can be done without infringement of the Way, and as soon as this is impossible, resigns." (11.23)  "Best of all is to withdraw from one's generation; next to withdraw to another land; next to leave because of a look; next to leave because of a word." (14.39). And this: "When good governance prevails in the empire, [the scholar] is in evidence. When it is without good governance, he withdraws." (8.13) There are other such interpretive passages throughout Confucianism. But it was the compelling ethics that haunted Tu Fu, as much as his own private irresolution.

Tu Fu's life falls into three periods we may label chronologically as early, middle, and mature.

Early Years

Tu Fu was born to a comfortable status and received an excellent education, clearly groomed for imperial service. But there was an ambiguous distraction in his character. At eighteen or twenty, he underwent the civil service examination -- and failed it. The exam was not rote academics but included the judgment of others concerning the youth's understanding of deportment, ritual and perspicacious duty in the Confucian tradition. What part did he fail?

After this clear embarrassment to his family, Tu Fu took a share of his wealth and began a series of travels and explorations that he described as "more than eight years of lively freedom." Afterwards he became a "temp," seeking out literary employments in the court or of a court or provincial official as he could. His Confucianism animated his keen sense of duty and obligation to support the emperor, but Tu Fu was too smart to not see the decadence and corruption of the central government. These years of dissolution taught him the pleasure of the wine cup, the beauty of poetry, and a grudging admiration of eremiticism. This latter he learned from the somewhat distorted examples of Li Po and Kao Shih, celebrants of aesthetics and cynicism.

But Tu Fu was learning, too, from authentic hermits, as in this excursion to a village where a hermit Chang lived.

Spring has brought me to seek you out in these hills.
The sound of your axe chopping wood breaks the stillness.
I cross rivulets yet covered with snow and ice.
The sun's rays through the Stone Gate Cliffs reaches this spot.
You care nothing for the gold and silver in these mountains;
You live with deer and learn from them how they avert harm.
We tramp around and soon lose ourselves,
Carefree as a pair of empty boats adrift.

In these days, Tu Fu made a conscious excuse for not reclusing himself: he lacked the money to set himself up as a hermit.  He had exhausted his family's money and tolerance, with little to show for his temporary jobs or his poetic efforts. But he had begun to refer to himself as a sojourner, and in the early poem quoted above appears an image he will attribute to himself many times in the future: empty boat, a boat adrift.

Middle Years

Hereafter begins the second part of Tu Fu's life, characterized by China's growing decline into civil war, a war that would impoverish the countryside, conscript far and wide, empower corrupt and rapacious men into office, and lead to the downfall of the T'ang dynasty and its accomplishments.  In this atmosphere Tu Fu would find himself increasingly alienated from court, his poetic powers waxing with the ebbing of his material fortunes and his own waning hopes. And underlying this grand and tumultuous setting was Tu Fu's essential dilemma: to serve or to recluse.

In the late 730's, the long-reigning T'ang emperor Huan Tung, the so-called Brilliant Emperor, executed several sons, including the crown prince. As a caprice he took the wife of one son into his harem. Eventually he made a favorite, Yang Kuei-fei, his chief consort. She beguiled the aging emperor into appointing her cousin Yang-kuo-chung as his chief and most powerful minister.

While the doddering emperor expended his days in pleasure, Yang-kuo-chung's newfound power overthrew established rank and privilege. Executions and banishments multiplied, the frontiers against non-Chinese dangerously weakened, and the economy collapsed. Yang-kuo-ching was overthrown and the former court, including Tu Fu's emperor, were exiled. But the chief representatives of the empire were now provincial governors not court ministers, which meant the ascension of military governors, most of whom were non-Chinese, "foreigners." In 752, the most powerful of them, An Lu-shan, came to the capital invested with power in an atmosphere of fear.

Noting with great apprehension the war rumbles on the empire's borders but eager to find stability in the rapidly deteriorating court, Tu Fu determined to be of service. He retook the civil service examination -- and failed again. He was forty-years old, increasing out of favor because of age and the lack of money, patrons, and friends. He sent fawning poems to the emperor and then to a minister, hoping for appointment. He received none. Tu Fu wrote:

It is better, O scholar, to retire early,
Even to an unproductive farm and an old hut covered with moss.
After all, what is Confucianism to us?
Confucius and the bandit So-and-So:
Are they not both dust?

And he wrote of himself, too:

Failure after failure continues to the present,
And he will have to contend with ending in the dust.
Regretting that he did not imitate the best hermits,
who could not be made to leave their hermitages.

Three years later, after much hardship, Tu Fu is offered a provincial post overseeing punishment for draft evaders and tax delinquents. He turns it down. But a substitution is made to a nominal office in the Crown Prince's Palace. This he fortunately accepts.

Fortunately because by this time Tu Fu had married, had children, and supported brothers, sisters, perhaps cousins: a "household of ten." The new job was fifth in rank in the Crown Prince's court, with a decent salary. "The thought of returning to the home hills is over," Tu Fu muses ruefully. At the same time he regrets having to leave his family, despite their recent poverty. The oppressive draft was everywhere, rumors of impeding civil war abounded, and famine was rife. Tu Fu learns of the death of his youngest son from hunger. His poetry reflects the love of his family and the anxiety and guilt of  having to leave them for the capital.

Then began the An Lu-shan Rebellion. The rebellion targeted the capital Ch'ang-an. Hundreds of thousands of troops were mobilized on both sides. The emperor fled, then abdicated to his son. At the outbreak of war, Tu Fu had been traveling to his new post and was captured by rebel troops. He was too insignificant to execute or banish., but he was imprisoned. In the capital prison he wrote:

The nation is shattered;
Only the landscape remains ...
The whole universe is suffering fearsome wounds.
When shall we come to the end of our anxiety and disquiet?

In 754, An Lu-shan was assassinated. Tu Fu escaped to where the crown prince had fled, and was awarded with the titular function of Reminder. He takes the appointment too seriously; Tu-Fu is arrested for an inadvertent criticism of the emperor. The detention is short-lived but ironic. He is dismissed to return to his family.

I am living a stolen life in the evening of age.
Even homecoming means but little peace and joy.
My thoughts are carried to the scenes of hermitage,
Close to nature and far from the turmoil of men.
I regret that the course of my life has been a mistake.

The rebel remnants were defeated outside the capital, and Tu Fu went there with his family in tow, seeking a new appointment. But with the economy in shambles, imperial salaries had stopped and impoverishment had deepened.  After two years of begging from old acquaintances, pawning clothes, and accumulating debts -- including wine debts -- Tu Fu was granted a prefecture post far from Ch'ang-an and from his family. His duties required him to undertake lengthy and exhausting trips across a scarred and desperate landscape. But Tu Fu was still writing poems praising the restored emperor and his generals, presumably to keep his job but also in vain expectation of a more serious appointment.

Separated from his family, Tu Fu thinks of his wife on a moonlit night.

The moon shines in Fu-Chou tonight,
In her chamber, she watches alone.
I pity my distant boy and girl.
They don't know why she thinks of Ch'ang-an.
Her cloud-like hair is sweet with mist,
Her jade arms cold in the clear moonlight.
When shall we lean together in the empty window,
Together in brightness, our tears dried?

Service haunted Tu Fu. "I have no talents and am growing old," he acknowledges. The prospect of reclusion gives him vague hope. On one trip, he visits an old acquaintance ("hermit " or "scholar" Wei) now living in the mountains with his family, surrounded by children, a garden, ample food. Tu Fu leaves Wei a convivial poem.

But the poems of this period are somber and pessimistic reflections on war and the hardship of the common people, for despite the defeat of the An Lu-shan faction, the frontiers are more restless than ever. Tu Fu experiences the suffering ad poverty first-hand during his travels, which seem pointless to him.

Independence has always been the desire of my life.
And now I am sadly approaching fifty.
To continue or leave an official career --
I am free to choose.
Why be further burdened with these senseless tasks?

His notes on exiles and recluses continue the tone of these reflections. He writes of Tsan, former abbot of Ta-Yun monastery in Ch'ang-an:

You have great talents, but you wanted no political success.
Holding aloof from the world, you lived alone in retirement.
Though you were a private person recognized for unusual ability,
You were also a scholar content to remain in extreme poverty.

Of an old friend Cheng Chien, Tu Fu notes that he is "still in exile, working as a farmer by the gullies deep in the hills," while Yu-chou is "within hearing of the gibbon's cry" and Pa-chou is in the mountains "where only birds can reach, in distant places of banishment." "This is a hermit's spot," Tu Fu writes of his present residence, "but to remain or to leave is alike difficult."

Mature Years

But at last, in 760, Tu Fu makes the fateful decision from which he will not turn back (except once, briefly!). He quits his official position, probably on the pretext of health, and travels with his family to Chin-chou. This begins the third period of his life, a series of wanderings in search of the ideal homestead, in south China. This period also represents his most productive and compelling poetry. Tu Fu's verses extrapolate from his failed attempts at public service to reveal the course of his fate and clear ideal of eremitism.

In 760, Tu Fu moves to Ch'ang-tu, where a neighbor had fled from a magistrate's post out of "desire for hermitage." In 762, the Brilliant Emperor was dead and once again Tu Fu was tempted to reconsider applying for office. A rebellion by the local governor-general, however, prompted flight. It would not have been the service he had in mind.

Like the dragon not settled in one place,
Or the brown crane that soared through the skies,
The able and wise have from ancient times
Not let their freedom be curtailed by circumstance.
I, however, am only a short-sighted and unwise man. ...

When young , I was like a fish leaping in the stream,
Now I am like a dog lost from home.

In 764, Tu Fu was made a military advisor to the general Yen Wu, clearly an office he did not seek. Regretting separation from his family to pass most of his time in an isolated outpost, Tu Fu writes: "I feel like a tortoise caught in a fisherman's net, or a bird that peeps from a cage." But with the general's death the next year, Tu Fu quickly gathered his family to escape by sail to YΓΌn-an.

By 767, Tu Fu is living in Nang-east, then the urban Nang-west. In 768 he travels to Chiang-ling with still another official title, apparently in name only. These are the years of his most evocative poems, heart-felt reflections on the continuing war and social disruption, his own sense of futility and error.

Evening approaches the mountain paths,
I come to this tower chamber, close to the Water Gate.
Thin clouds rest on cliff edges.
A fine moon tumbles among the waves.
A line of cranes in flight is silent.
A pack of wolves baying over prey breaks the night.
I cannot sleep, thinking of war,
That I am powerless to amend the world.

Tu Fu has no illusions about the nature of power and authority. He knows that those in office are

wasps and scorpions in the dust and on the sand;
dragons and crocodiles in the river gorges.

His regret is the waste of his talent, his frustrated efforts to bring ethics and wisdom to public life. Despite dabbling in Taoism and Buddhism, Tu Fu is essentially Confucian, seeing the virtues of his life in terms of serving the state and emperor. Did not Confucius himself spend a lifetime in a futile search of opportunities to serve? But Taoism specifically rejected the very nature of society and government as conceived by Confucianism, and Tu Fu understood this philosophy, remarking:

Having filled one's belly, every ambition should be put to rest.
Why should education and government arise
To ensnare humanity in an inescapable net?

By this time Tu Fu had received a farm from the governor-general, a veritable retirement gift. Now, he writes, "I mete out my time between poetry and agriculture." Now, "I feel as useless to the world as the legendary hermit in a deer-skin coat."

Tu Fu's old ailments were catching up: malaria, lung troubles (perhaps asthma). He was white-haired, could barely use a pin in his balding pate, and walked with a staff. We no longer hear much about wine.

He thinks about Peach Blossom Valley and the example of Tao Chien's reclusion, remarking wistfully that "many good men in the past have hidden away from a degenerate world." He wishes that Tao Chien was here to converse with him.

He stays at the Buddhist monastery of Yu-Lu-Shan a while to study quietly with the monks.

The surroundings of home inspire him:

Every turn of the landscape shall be absorbed into my bosom.
Every bird or flower shall be my friend.

Tu Fu always understood his contradictions.

Among the ancients there were good men
     who refused to compromise and starved to death.
And there were able men who humored the world
     and received rich gifts.
These are mutually exclusive paths.
The trouble with me is that I have wanted to follow them both!

But in his last years, Tu Fu embraced simplicity and the principles of eremiticism as well as he could.

Mine has been a life that wavers between sinking and floating,
In an atmosphere of dreary decadence.
I know the wholesome simplicity of ancient times can hardly return,
Still, I have kept a naive innocence,
    unaware of a world of machinations.
Of food, I have taken freely a few morsels,
   no more than a little wren could eat.
As for money, I accept only what is right for the donor to give
   as well as for me to receive.
Going home? The old verse about the abandoned spring grass
   deepens my forlornness.
A place to settle down? Peach Blossom Valley has eluded me.

Just as Peach Blossom Valley had eluded his contemporaries.

The bloodshed of war has continued,
And the cries of battle have not ceased even now.

Only a few hermits, sages, and Taoist adepts had been wise.

From his corpse, Ko Hung departed alive.
In exile, Hsu Ching still managed well for his family. ...

Hsu had mastered livelihood.
Ko the secrets of immortality.
I have failed in both.
I have only timely tears.

Tu Fu died in 770 at the age of fifty-eight.


English translations of Tu Fu vary widely, and there exist many more than are mentioned here. William Hung's translations are literal and intended for meaning; Burton Watson provides a chronology of the 135 poems he translates, which are technical, terse, often unclear, and convey little emotion. Kenneth Rexroth, who popularized Tu Fu in his classic translations, sticks close to meaning and is infused with strong sentiment. David McCraw is baroque, even rococo, using archaisms, unhelpful truncations, and difficult turns of phrase. David Hinton's translations are minimalist, rewriting context and meaning.

  1. William Hung, Tu Fu, China's Greatest Poet. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952 and New York: Russell & Russell, 1969.
  2. Burton Watson, The Selected Poems of Du Fu. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
  3. Kenneth Rexroth, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. New York: New Directions, 1971 [includes 35 poems of Tu Fu].
  4. David Hinton, Selected Poems of Tu Fu. New York: New Directions, 1989.
  5. David R. McCraw, Du Fu's Laments from the South. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.