The Poor Carry the Burden of War
by Jennifer Styperk
Du Fu: A Life in Poetry
translated by David Young
Knopf: 226 pages, $16.95
On election day, a poetic commentary on the problems of “modernity”, bureaucratic corruption, war, middle-class drudgery, and the plight of the poor, was published as quietly as the poet himself had lived. In his work, Du Fu reveals, among many injustices, that the poor carry the burden of the wars of ruling classes— a violence that devastates not only the soldiers and their wives but corrodes all families in the society.
This warning comes to us from the 8th Century A.D. during the corrupt Tang Dynasty in China. Repeatedly Du Fu writes that his heart is heavy as he contemplates the impossibility of a poor individual to develop in the context of their relationship to a ruling class that abuses its power. A meritocracy, generated from the philosophy of Confucianism, opened civil service to anyone who could pass the imperial exam as opposed to limiting positions exclusively to the aristocracy. Du Fu’s father benefited from the new scholarly-gentry class, however, Du Fu witnessed the favoritism and nepotism rampant just two dynasties after its inception. Later in his life, Du Fu directly calls out the ruling class for ignoring the highest ethos of Confucianism which is best translated to say, “do not do unto others what you would not want done unto you.”
Du Fu, a Confuscianist, integrates Daoist and Buddhist philosophies, which were recently brought to China from India through trading along the Silk Road. The 8th Century Chinese, inventors of gunpowder and the first printing press, also bring us the first lyric poet. Of most importance to classical Chinese literary criticism is a comprehensive and accurate understanding of the author’s historical context and biography. Young, a Professor of Emeritus at Oberlin College, presents the Western reader with the best opportunity to understand Du Fu’s work and life by arranging the poems chronologically, beginning each of the 11 sections with concise records of Du Fu’s life and time and including footnotes at the close of each poem.
In what is likely the first lyric poem ever written, “Five Hundred Words about my Journey to Fengxian,” Du Fu directly expresses personal grief over the loss of his son and insurmountable anguish over social injustices. After shaming himself for not being able to feed his family and blaming himself for his son’s death, he notes that he has never had to pay taxes or be conscripted to fight in the An Lushan Rebellion. He continues:
I realize I’ve had an easy life
and I think again of the poor
losing their farms, sons sent to war
no end to their grief’s
till my sorrow becomes a mountain
whose peak I cannot see (66).
Du Fu consistently laments the plight of the poor throughout his life. He weeps for the old woman who steals dates from his tree because she has been “skinned to the bone” by the taxes to pay for the wars (197). The poor lose their “help with plowing/ all their boys have been conscripted” (87). Elder to younger brother duties are nearly impossible to uphold with communication broken down by war and “the letters we [Du Fu and his brother’s] send each other/ never seem to arrive” (101). And while the poor are hardest hit by war, all of society suffers because “all of us know these times/whirl families in all directions” (85).
Long before Baudelaire aestheticized objects, Du Fu writes about hatpins and washboards (73, 109). Writing in the voice of a woman, an uncommon approach employed by his predecessor Li Bai, Da Fu emphasizes the hardships of domestic duties, especially during war times, in which “a woman uses all her strength/ beating the laundry with a club” to send the soldier’s winter clothes to where he is stationed. “Soon you’ll feel the cold,” the female speaker says, “the way I feel our separation” (109).
Young’s translation, while attending to historical accuracy, also provides echoes of the rhyming couplets, syntactical parallelism and contrasting content in the second and third stanzas that set Du Fu apart from other classical Chinese poets. Though the capacity for rhyme is vastly larger in Chinese than in English, Young skillfully employs assonance, consonance, slant and implied rhyme to evoke the chanting music of the lushi, the form that Du Fu mastered.
Not just for poets and historians, but for history buffs, feminists, World Civilizations students and all those wishing to be ethical, compassionate citizens, David Young’s definitive collection historically contextualizes the work of a man who describes himself as “a lone gull/ somewhere between earth and sky” (213).