China’s Shakespeare, the Poet Du Fu (712-770)

In Brief:

painting of Du Fu
painting of Du Fu

This post explores Du Fu’s poem “Day’s End” in terms of the key characteristics of contemporary English-language haibun composition. It also explores the value of modelling the work of writers whose poetry touches you as a way of expanding your writing repertoire.


Some years ago, I was interested in expanding my reading from Japanese Masters (Basho and Issa) to Chinese Masters and somehow found my way to Du Fu’s poems. It was frustrating that it was so difficult to find the work of Du Fu and other Asian masters in online sources, particularly in light of Harvard professor Stephen Owen’s comment: “We have Dante, Shakespeare and Du Fu (712-770). These poets create the very values by which poetry is judged.” If Du Fu is so highly regarded by the world’s literary scholars, why is it that the Chinese poet-sage Du Fu . . . an immortal in the East Asian cultural sphere, still remains largely unknown in the Western world, and particularly unknown by poetry enthusiasts?

I liked what I found in Du Fu’s writing. As with Basho and Issa, it warmed me to think I could relate to the experiences and poetic sensibilities of a person writing in 8th century China to my own experiences in 21st century Canada. He’d communicated not just from another country, but across a gap 1300 years. Perhaps it’s because the joys and sorrows of the lived life, despite all our luxuries, hasn’t changed that much.

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5 thoughts on “China’s Shakespeare, the Poet Du Fu (712-770)

  1. This blog post opened a window to technique that can help me improve my haibun. I appreciated the link to the longer essay published in Haibun Today. A bit of searching led me to the BBC documentary about Du Fu on Vimeo.


  2. Chinese philosophy and culture fascinated me long before I discovered haiku, but this post was my introduction to Du Fu. For more, I purchased two books by David Hinton – Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry and The Selected Poems of Tu Fu. The former explains basic concepts and gives detailed commentary linking them to a few poems. Hinton’s intent is that the first lays the groundwork for understanding the large collection is the second.

    It strikes me that haiku and haibun are branches on the tree rooted in classical Chinese concepts.


  3. Thanks for the comment, Jani. My knowledge of classical Chinese poetry is limited to studying the work of a few of the “masters” who appeal to scholars like David Hinton. When I first read Hinton’s translations of Du Fu (Tu Fu), I was taken with its haiku-like quality. Simple phrases, descriptive detail, telling a story, often poignant.
    Hinton’s Selected Poems of Tu Fu stimulated me to use it as a model and I felt it helped my writing.
    Do you have a Blog where you post your writing?


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