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Confucian Prophet: Political Thought In Du Fu’s Poetry (752–757) By David K. Schneide ...

Chapter 1:  Poetry and Political Thought
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Confucian Prophet:

he was truly loyal to Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗 (r. 712–756) or how the political turmoil of the day prompted a compassionate call for relief of the common people and less extravagance at court. Most prevalent in this mode of analysis is the sharp focus on Du’s own emotional responses, his self-mocking and criticism in the face of his failure to realize and live his high ideals as an official, as the Tang court and dynasty fell into decline and the empire was engulfed in rebellion and war. This conflation of the poet and the poem limits one to a very narrow set of questions asked about the personal world of the poet. It raises emotional response over ideas and does not allow for a study of questions of politics considered more abstractly. These largely unquestioned assumptions lead to a cul-de-sac of standard questions and analytical categories passed down by tradition. That tradition has created, essentially, an interpretive model that assumes a set of truisms about Du Fu the man. He was a good and loyal Confucian; therefore, his calls for lower taxes and limits on court extravagance and military adventurism are expressions of the poet’s sincere devotion to Confucianism; and his lamentations, motivated by such sincere concerns, are necessarily about his own failure to live up to his high Confucian ideals. This fallacy rules out any sense that the poet may be working out a philosophical problem or taking a rhetorical stance within a system of thought rather than expressing selected tenets of that system uncritically. For example, as William Theodore de Bary notes, “Confucius has no hesitation in identifying himself as a man of learning who does not bother with farming, gardening or military affairs.”2 Du Fu, on the contrary, associates himself with all three; he often identifies more with the recluses and farmers in the Analects than with Confucius himself or his disciples, and he is deeply concerned with the military affairs of his day. His vision of the ideal society is not based on ritual and hierarchy; it is political-economic and based on human sympathy and friendship, a subtle blend of Mencius 孟子 (ca. 372–ca. 289 BC) and Tao Qian 陶潛 (365–427), which does not ignore the role of the state and its military power. Even if Du’s poetry does fit primarily within the world of Confucian discourse, a crucial question remains: Where? The