Du Fu Transforms: Tradition and Ethics amid Societal Collapse. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2021. link

Du Fu Transforms offers a new reading of the works of the poet generally considered the greatest in Chinese history. Having passed his youth in the glory years of the Tang empire, Du Fu (712–770) was an eyewitness, in the middle of his life, to the cataclysmic An Lushan rebellion, which opened the curtain on a nine-year civil war and, ultimately, several centuries of instability and unrest. With the dynasty in disarray, his faith in its founding ideologies collapsed with it, including those that had made the art of poetry central to literati life in the period. As he drifted in exile around the peripheries of the ruined empire, therefore, Du Fu gradually abandoned the high-cultural poetics he had mastered in his youth, developing in their place new modes whose eventual canonization would catalyze massive shifts in both poetic understanding and ethical thought over the next several centuries.

Du Fu Transforms thus presents a revisionary intellectual biography of Du Fu, contextualized by a broader argument about Chinese poetic history. Because Du Fu’s poetry has been so central to the Chinese poetic canon over the last millennium, readers and literary historians have generally taken his work as representative of his age, and indeed of the tradition as a whole. Yet if, as I argue, Du Fu’s mature poetry was highly eccentric in his own time, then his work should rather be seen as as a pivot between vastly different visions of what poetry is and why it matters. By responding to the intellectual problems of his own time, Du Fu created a body of work that would allow later critics to reinterpret the tradition of Chinese poetry in ways that were much more novel than has previously been recognized.

That Du Fu’s work should have acted as such a pivot is, moreover, no coincidence. As I demonstrate, his grappling with the collapse of the moral and poetic certainties of his youth led him to design his late poetry so that it might speak across the boundaries imposed by the inevitability of cultural transformation. His mature work thus provides a compelling model for thinking about how traditions work, why they are important, and how we can best participate in them.

Errata found as of 10/22


Peer-Reviewed Articles and Book Chapters

“Against the Monist Model of Tang Poetry.” T’oung Pao 107 (2021): 633–87. pdf

In recent decades, a significant amount of Western scholarship on traditional Chinese poetry and poetics has either proposed or assumed a vision of the art underwritten by the supposed “monism,” “nonduality,” and “immanence” of traditional Chinese worldviews. This essay argues that although these were important ideas in certain periods and contexts, they cannot be taken as unproblematically defining the world of thought in which poetry operated during the Tang dynasty. Instead, Tang writers more routinely drew in their discussions of art upon the epistemological tensions and discontinuities posited by medieval intellectual and religious traditions. For this reason, they often outlined models of poetry very different from those most common in contemporary criticism.


“Three Narrative Sequences from Du Fu’s Exile on the Western Frontiers.” Journal of Oriental Studies 50.1 (2021): 1–68. pdf

Towards the end of 759, Du Fu experimented repeatedly with long poetic series. Three of these series are narratives, structured by previously unrecognized internal architectures linking their constituent poems and even the series themselves. This article offers an extended discussion of these series’ structures, an interpretation of their core narratives, and a new annotated translation into English.


“Ironic Empires.” In Reading Du Fu: Nine Views, edited by Xiaofei Tian, 56–72. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2020. pdf

This chapter considers the irreducible complexity of Du Fu’s relationship to the Tang empire in his late poetry from Kuizhou. During this period, his poems repeatedly portray miniature versions of the empire in the ostensibly private, domestic affairs that occupied his attention in a region where he had no property and few friends. Readers have been divided as to the significance of these poems: for some, that he should have continued even in his exile to see the empire everywhere he turned has evidenced his continuing commitment to the Tang; to others, the patent absurdity of some of these miniature empires has suggested a mockery of imperial pretensions. This chapter argues that both of these antithetical interpretations are correct. As soon as Du Fu seeks to assert his continued connection with the values of the empire, he recognizes the absurdity of his overreach; and as soon as he recognizes the absurdity of his overreach, he acknowledges the darker ways in which he remains dependent, even in Kuizhou, upon imperial hierarchies of questionable justice.

*This essay should have cited an unpublished paper by Huijun Mai that she shared with me in 2015, more than a year before I began working on this chapter. Professor Mai’s paper recognized the metaphor that Du Fu was drawing between his chicken coop and the empire; that observation is thus not original to my essay. It also appears in Gregory Patterson’s “Elegies for Empire” (PhD diss.: Columbia University, 2013).


“Other Poetry on the An Lushan Rebellion: Notes on Time and Transcendence in Tang Verse.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 79, nos. 1–2 (2019): 1–48. pdf

This article examines poetry about the An Lushan rebellion (755–763) written during its course by poets other than Li Bai and Du Fu. Despite the centrality of the rebellion to narratives of Chinese literary history, this corpus of poetry is rarely discussed, in large part because it does not provide the sort of visceral witness to the cataclysm that later readers have expected from verse written in troubled times. Instead, this poetry almost always seeks to transfigure or transcend its historical ground through the invocation of alternate frames by which author and readers come to stand apart from current events. This observation offers us a window onto the relationship between poetic practice during the eighth century and longstanding commentarial ideals about poetry’s relationship to history, as well as a way of recontextualizing Li Bai’s and Du Fu’s innovative poetic responses to the rebellion.


“Figure and Flight in the Songs of Chu (Chu ci).” Asia Major 32, no. 2 (2019): 41–72. pdf

This article discusses a previously unnoticed figural technique found in several poems and series in the Chuci 楚辭, one of the earliest poetry anthologies from ancient China. In these poems, images that appear in one sense reappear later on in a strikingly different meaning. In some of these poems and series, the effect may be merely coincidental, the result of poets or performers working with limited repertoires of tropes that therefore return in different ways. Elsewhere, however, the technique becomes regular and purposeful, part of a metatextual reflection upon the poems’ own use of figures and images. By examining the poems and series that employ it, we can begin to trace the contours of a heretofore unwritten early history of literary theorization in China.


The Corrected Interpretations of the Five Classics (Wujing zhengyi 五經正義) and the Tang Legacy of Obscure Learning (Xuanxue).” T’oung Pao 104, no. 1 (2019): 76–127. pdf

The Corrected Interpretations of the Five Classics (Wujing zhengyi) is a surprisingly neglected source for the study of medieval Chinese intellectual history. Often considered more of a political performance than an intellectual one, the series has been charged with heterogeneity in its attempt to put an end to the intellectual disputes of the period of division and to craft an orthodoxy for the nascent Tang dynasty. This paper will show, however, that the Zhengyi subcommentaries do articulate a coherent intellectual position with regard to a set of crucial questions about the cosmos, the ancient sages, and the culture that they inaugurated. Repurposing xuanxue arguments about the inherent obscurity of the dao and the cosmos, the Zhengyi argues that most of us cannot understand the source of normative values, and that therefore our only recourse is to limit our intellectual presumptions and follow the models provided by the ancient Sage Kings.


“An enquiry into the dating of Du Fu’s ‘Three Poems on the Recovery of the Capital”’ 杜甫《收京三首》作年考辨. Du Fu yanjiu xuekan 杜甫研究學刊 124, no. 2 (2015): 79–85. pdf

历代杜诗编者和注家几乎都认为《收京三首》写于至德二年( 757) 或乾元元年( 758) ,唯有宋朝蔡兴宗对此说加以反驳,将该组诗看为广德二年( 764) 春写的。本文认为,虽然蔡说尚未能完全打破旧说,但与旧说相比,在该组诗的一些重要内容上,蔡说更为稳妥。笔者希望本文能引起杜诗学界对于这个问题的关注。

The editors of and commentators on Du Fu’s collection over many centuries have largely dated his “Three Poems on the Recovery of the Capitals” to 757 or 758. Only one commentator, the Song-dynasty scholar Cai Xingzong, has questioned this dating, instead seeing the poems as having been written in the spring of 764. This essay argues that although Cai’s justification for this refutation cannot prove to a certainty that the common dating is wrong, his unjustly neglected reading of the poem is in fact more likely.