Making China's Greatest Poet: The Construction of Du Fu in the Poetic Culture of the Song Dynasty (960-1279)

PhD defended at: 

Princeton

Author: 

Jue Chen

Defended: 

2016

In traditional narrative of Chinese literary history, Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770) is arguably the “greatest poet of China,” and it was in the Song 宋 (960-1279) that his greatness was finally recognized. This narrative naturally presumes that the real Du Fu in history is completely accessible to us, which is not necessarily true. This dissertation provides another perspective to understand Du Fu and the “greatness” of his poetry. I emphasize that the image of Du Fu that we now have is more of a persona that has been constructed from his available poetic texts. Poets in the Song Dynasty, especially those in the eleventh century, took initiative to construct this persona, and their construction of Du Fu was largely conditioned by their own literary and intellectual concerns. The entire dissertation is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1 investigates how Du Fu’s poetic collection emerged. His collection, as it was compiled and edited, not only provided a platform, but also set restrictions, for the construction of Du Fu. Chapter 2 examines how Du Fu used to be remembered before his collection took form. Memory of him before the eleventh century was considerably different from his received image. The remaining chapters focus on three major aspects of Du Fu’s persona – namely his images as a poet-historian, a master of poetic craft, and a Confucian poet – to analyze how and why Du Fu was constructed as such in the Song. Song poets accepted poetry as a medium loaded with valuable information, and they thus explored Du Fu’s poetry for history; they concerned themselves with issues pertaining to poetic craft, and retrospectively looked for examples in Du Fu’s poetry as established standards; they, as scholar-officials, committed themselves to the state, and declared Du Fu as their model. In sum, Song poets provided particular readings to Du Fu’s particular poems, and claimed these readings as the result of Du Fu’s intentional production. Through interpretation of Du Fu’s surviving poems, they constructed Du Fu as China’s greatest poet.

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