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Poets of the Tang Dynasty
Most modern Chinese students of history consider the Tang Dynasty (618–907) the golden age of China. Civil service exams identified capable administrators and poetry was an important component of the examinations.
Adventurers seek fame and fortune, poets are often content with fame, Du Fu achieved neither in his lifetime.
Du Fu was born in 712 AD during the reign of Empress Wu. His place of birth is unclear, though he claimed the capital city of Chang’an as his ancestral home. His mother died soon after his birth.
In 744 he met the reclusive Li Bai, who was then a poetic rock star. In 746, he moved to the capital to try to establish a civil service career after failing the civil service exam. In 755 he received a minor posting, but this was soon swept away by the events of the An Lushan Rebellion, his capture by rebel forces and his escape a year later, when he joined the emperor in Chengdu, where he took up living in a thatched cottage and wrote many of his poems over the course of the next four or five years.
In 762, Luoyang, the region of his birthplace, was recovered by government forces, and the following spring, Du Fu and his family began a slow journey down the Yangtse generally in that direction, but with many stops. In 768, the journey began again, but he died in Hunan Province two years later at the age of 58.
There is much melancholy in Du Fu’s later poems. Here are the opening two lines from a greeting with an old friend, Wang Wei, “It is almost as hard for friends to meet, as for the morning and evening stars…”
The children of his host question Du Fu about his travels and bring him, “wines and food dishes, Spring chives cut in the night-rain and brown rice freshly cooked in a special way.”
Wei, as host, then proclaims the evening a festival, urging, “me to drink ten cups of wine. But no amount could make me drunk as I am forever with your love? Oh, Tomorrow will the mountains separate us; After tomorrow, who can say?”
Meng Haoran, 孟浩然 (circa 689/691–740), an early Tang poet, was considered by contemporaries as an eccentric who seemingly cared only for wine and poetry. But, it is evident from his poem Parting from Wang Wei, that he also cared deeply about friendships. The sentiment, loosely translated is, ‘Few are the friends to help on life’s journey? Dear friend, you are gone, and now, closing the door to my gate, I am alone.’
Li Bai, a friend of Meng’s wrote, ‘You chose pine-trees and clouds; and now, white-haired and drunk with the moon, a flower-bewitched, sage of dreams – deaf to the Emperor’s ear.’ Message to Meng Haoran
Meng seems to have spent most of his life living off the income from his land-owning parents. Perhaps, spurred on by his mother’s insistence, he took the imperial examination. There is a dispute as to whether he passed or failed, but most authorities suggest that he failed.