Confucian Prophet: Political Thought In Du Fu’s Poetry (752–757)

by David K. Schneider


*This book is in the Cambria World Sinophone Series
(General editor: Victor H. Mair)

Du Fu’s place in Chinese literary history is second to none. This book shows that Du Fu (712–770) also deserves a prominent place in the history of ideas and political thought. Studies of Du Fu have tended to read his poetry as personal expressions of emotion, a practice that sets up 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 inhibits our ability to see how the poet may actually be working out philosophical problems, or taking rhetorical positions within a system of thought rather than expressing selected tenets of that system uncritically.

This book argues, contrary to the methods so far employed in studies of Du Fu, that the reading of literary texts as political philosophy must adopt modern methods of both literary criticism and political thought. Drawing on J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner, the first chapter of the book approaches language as both a structure of authority and a conceptual world in which the individual poet exits and works. Such a linguistic world develops through time in the creation of a literary-philosophical culture and the fashioning of political structures in part conceived in terms of that culture. A poem is not autonomous. It is both an individual expression of forms and ideas drawn from the conceptual world of language and a comment on that same world, both in its linguistic and its real manifestations.

Reading Du Fu’s major philosophical poems written just before, during, and after the 755 An Lushan Rebellion from this methodological perspective, reveals a far more sophisticated and original political thinker than previously realized. Du rejects the idea of a fatalist, mechanistic universal order that underlay much of the intellectual and literary thought of his times for a view of the world as a human drama of building a civilized kingdom in accord with the natural moral underpinnings of the cosmos, in which progress and decline are a matter of human choice and human error. Accordingly, he rejects the reclusive ethos of his generation and argues for the imperative of service even in corrupt political times, a view at odds with what is arguably the “orthodox” Confucian view of the issue. He envisions, rather than an aristocratic order with the emperor as the cosmic pivot at its center, a simple classical monarchy ruling over an idyllic rural social order that has much in common with the idyllic visions of the Shi jing and Tao Qian (365-427).

This vision challenges the aristocratic social structure of the age and its supporting ideology. For Du, the great clan system that ruled in the aristocratic age of the Tang was a barrier to the realization of a just political and economic order based on his classical ideals. These poems suggest that such an order was possible, but only with a major flattening out of the class structure and institutional reform that envisioned a literati class closely connected with the common people and sharing with them both their prosperity and their suffering, a significant redefinition of previous Confucian conceptions of the nature of human suffering. These visions of the ideal domestic order imply a foreign policy that achieves the insulation of China from the involvement and penetration of foreign peoples and elements, both military and political, again, a position quite different from the practice of the time and from certain strains of universalism in Confucian thought.

The book concludes with a synthesis of Du’s political philosophy in relation to three key themes: prophecy, utopia and history. It shows that, while his thought is original and innovative, especially for his time, Du’s is not the voice of a philosopher but of a prophet. Indeed, Du’s An Lushan-era poems conform almost completely with the outlines of Wm. Theodore de Bary’s and Julia Ching’s definitions of the prophetic voice in the Confucian tradition. It is this voice and its promise of a recovery of a Golden Age utopia in historical time that explains many of Du’s most characteristic, and otherwise nearly inexplicable, innovations in Tang poetics.

The book will appeal to readers from specialists--including Chinese scholars in China today which has witnessed a veritable renaissance of non-ideological literary criticism and scholarship on the Chinese classics--to the large and growing readership for Chinese poetry in translation outside of academia.


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