As William Shakespeare is to literature in English, so is the poet Du Fu to the Chinese literary tradition. “We have Dante, Shakespeare and Du Fu. These poets create the very values by which poetry is judged,” remarked Harvard Professor Stephen Owen in Du Fu, China’s Greatest Poet, a new BBC documentary that aired on April 7.
Aimed at introducing the charm and beauty of traditional Chinese literature to viewers around the globe, the documentary invited famous British actor Ian McKellen, who played the wizard Gandalf in the film series The Lord of the Rings, to read 15 of Du’s poems that have been translated into English.
The one-hour film traces the poet’s life experiences in detail. Born in 712, Du lived under the reign of the Tang Emperor Xuanzong (713-756), a time marked by extraordinary prosperity, inclusiveness and cultural accomplishment.
However, as the An Lushan Rebellion of 755 floored the empire, Du, the former civil servant at the Tang court, had to take his family on the road as refugees, and endured starvation and suffering. Through ups and downs, the poet never stopped writing and about 1,500 poems have been kept over the ages.
In these poems, he poured out his concern for his country and people as well as the importance of celebrating the simple joys of life.
“Chinese people really value the recording of history and Du is better than anyone at reflecting history in his poetry. That’s because historical events are mirrored in his own life and spiritual journey,” Zeng Xiangbo, a professor of ancient Chinese literature at Renmin University of China, told China Daily.
Du has been “the guardian of the moral conscience of the nation,” according to the documentary.
Even though he never held a high position in the government, Du still cared about common people. For example, in the poem My Cottage Unroofed By Autumn Gales, he wrote that “Could I get mansions covering ten thousand miles, I’d house all scholars poor and make them beam with smiles.”
“That’s why he was honored as a Poet Sage by later generations. A difficult life and his spirit of concern about the world helped him create so many masterpieces,” Shi Wenxue, a cultural critic based in Beijing, told the Global Times.
Without doubt, Du is a cultural symbol of ancient China, but his brilliant works and core spirits have also inspired people outside of China. As the documentary noted, his work represents a precious cultural heritage for the entire world, not just China.