Arts & Culture

Poetic License: Understanding Du Fu

Laura Falls


Du Fu has the ability to show a large portion of an individual’s adventures through life in only a few short lines of poetry. Du Fu gives us the opportunity to see what life was like back in the 8th century by showing us the experiences of those living during this time. In “Poem for Wei Ba” Du Fu shows us a man who is catching up with an old friend, and in this poem he not only shows the experience that the man is currently having, but also the experiences the two men have had together in their past through their reminiscing.

How long can our youth and vigor last?

The hair at our temples is already gray.

We inquire about old acquaintances

to find that half are ghosts–

shocked cries betray

the torment of our hearts.


These men have spent so much of their lives apart, but still manage to bond through their mourning of lost friends.

They are aware that their lives have taken them to very different places and that this brief moment of catching up will soon be lost in the continuation of their lives. Although they may have had a wonderful time discovering where each others lives have taken them, they will soon be back to not knowing what has become of the other.

Tomorrow we will be separated

by the peaks of mountains,

each of our worldly affairs

lost to the other’s sight.


Some of the poems tell us much more somber tales of the tragedies in life. In “A Woman of Quality” Du Fu tells the story of a woman who had everything but war took that all away. Her brothers were killed and now the world has forgotten her.

The world turns quickly against

those who have had their day—

fortune is a lamp-flame

flickering in the wind.


This woman grew up privileged, and now that she has no family to her name, she has become nobody. She is insignificant to the people that she used to be so important to. Her husband has left her behind and has moved on and taken a new wife.

But he has eyes only

for his new woman’s smile,

and his ears are deaf

to his first wife’s weeping.


She is still the woman she was before, but without her status and family name, she is left homeless to mourn the loss of her family and of the life she once knew.

Du Fu gives another example of what time has taken away in “Jade Flower Palace”. A prince with all of the riches in the world, who presumably was well known in his lifetime, is now only remembered by the ruins of his once beautiful palace.

The shattered pavements are all

Washed away. Ten thousand organ

Pipes whistle and roar. The storm

Scatters the red autumn leaves.

His dancing girls are yellow dust.

Their painted cheeks have crumbled

Away. His gold chariots

And courtiers are gone. Only

A stone horse is left of his



He will never be remembered for who he was in his lifetime, only for what he built. Time has shown that what we do in our lives, no matter how important we may think it is, will more than likely be forgotten.


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