In the Footsteps of Du Fu by Michael Wood review – the great poet’s progress
Unfortunately, most of us who are not from China are not well-informed about the classical poetry of the country. This is further complicated by the frequent changes in transliteration of the names of renowned poets. In 1915, Ezra Pound’s influential collection Cathay featured writers whose names are no longer recognizable today. Previously known as Li Po, one of China’s most celebrated poets is now referred to as Li Bai. Similarly, his contemporary and close friend, the exceptional Du Fu, was previously known as Tu Fu in the western world. This difference in name can be confusing for non-Chinese speakers conducting online searches.
The poetry itself is even more elusive. In his excellent new book, Michael Wood unreservedly refers to Du Fu as “China’s greatest poet” (although some scholars may have different opinions on that, I personally agree with Wood). Du Fu wrote many of his best poems in seven-character couplets, each containing impressionistic imagery. This makes it extremely challenging to translate his work into the more discursive styles of most European poetry. For example, in one of Du Fu’s most renowned poems, Ballad of Lovely Women, he writes: “Tài nóng yì yuǎn shū qiě zhēn / Jī-lǐ xì-nì gǔ-ròu yún.” David Hawkes, who sparked my interest in translating Chinese poetry with his book A Little Primer of Tu Fu, literally translated this as: “Appearance gorgeous thoughts remote pure and true / Complexions delicate bones-flesh well-proportioned.”
You can see both the difficulty and the glorious challenge of making this something a speaker of English can get their mind around. Perhaps “Their lovely refinement shows itself in their pure, aloof beauty / Their delicate complexions and beautiful bodies?” No – that’s really rather clunky compared with the original. I once translated a bunch of Du Fu poems and actually had them published. When I checked them out for this review, though, I was depressed by the cack-handed quality of what I’d written.
However, just because we are unable to replicate the brilliance of Du Fu’s writing, it does not mean we cannot appreciate a book that recounts his life and journey. Wood, known for his exceptional ability to guide viewers through historical narratives, has personally explored the locations that Du visited and portrays them in his trademark reflective manner.
Du was a failed scholar who struggled all his life for government jobs, or even just handouts, to keep him and his family alive. So tough was his existence that one of his young sons died of hunger; something Du never forgot or forgave himself for. And yet despite the sorrowful quality of a lot of his poetry, there’s also much joy and love of good companionship. Du was good at making fun of himself, and even mocks his own poetry sometimes, which adds an agreeable aspect to his work.
However, above all, he possessed a keen eye for observing the events of his era. The times he lived in were truly remarkable! If you are curious as to why Xi Jinping insists on enforcing his tedious Thoughts on a large portion of China’s population – even more mundane and self-satisfied than those of Mao Zedong, who was himself a poet despite his significant flaws – you need only look at the era of Du Fu to understand how swiftly China can plummet from prosperity to complete disaster. The emperor during the early years of Du’s life was Xuanzong (AD 685-762), who was both intelligent and exceptionally cultured. Under his rule, China flourished and the Tang dynasty reached unprecedented levels of civilization. However, Xuanzong became infatuated with the beautiful Yang Guifei, who convinced him to grant jobs and vast amounts of wealth to her greedy relatives. This ultimately led to a rebellion in 755 led by a prominent general, An Lushan, which lasted for eight years and resulted in the deaths of up to 13 million people according to official records, out of a population of 50 million.
Du Fu witnessed the catastrophic uprising, documenting it through his unmatched poetry as he journeyed through treacherous terrain. To me, his poems possess the qualities of both top-notch journalism and art. In one such poem, “Grieving for a Young Prince,” Du Fu recounts his encounter with a member of the imperial family who is lost and being pursued on the streets of Xi’an, the capital. Despite wanting to aid the prince in escaping, Du Fu is too frightened and later regrets his fearfulness.
Wood’s portrayal of these events, along with many others, is eloquently crafted and extensively investigated. He embarks on a journey to each of the places that were significant in Du’s lengthy and challenging life, conversing with both academics and regular individuals he encounters along the way. The publishers have done an outstanding job in presenting the written words and accompanying visuals with exceptional precision. I intend to carry this book with me on all my travels henceforth, just as I have always brought Hawkes’s Little Primer of Tu Fu. Perhaps, with the aid of this book, I may improve as a translator of his unmatched poetry, even if only slightly.
John Simpson is the editor for world affairs at the BBC. Michael Wood’s book, In the Footsteps of Du Fu, is published by Simon & Schuster and is available for purchase at the Guardian Bookshop for £16.99. To help support the Guardian and Observer, you can order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional fees may apply for delivery.