Theses Doctoral

Elegies for Empire: The Poetics of Memory in the Late Work of Du Fu (712-770)

Patterson, Gregory Magai

This dissertation explores highly influential constructions of the past at a key turning point in Chinese history by mapping out what I term a poetics of memory in the more than four hundred poems written by Du Fu (712-770) during his two-year stay in the remote town of Kuizhou (modern Fengjie). A survivor of the catastrophic An Lushan rebellion (756-763), which transformed Tang Dynasty (618-906) politics and culture, Du Fu was among the first to write in the twilight of the Chinese medieval period. His most prescient anticipation of mid-Tang concerns was his restless preoccupation with memory and its mediations, which drove his prolific output in Kuizhou. For Du Fu, memory held the promise of salvaging and creatively reimagining personal, social, and cultural identities under conditions of displacement and sweeping social change. The poetics of his late work is characterized by an acute attentiveness to the material supports--monuments, rituals, images, and texts--that enabled and structured connections to the past. The organization of the study attempts to capture the range of Du Fu's engagement with memory's frameworks and media. It begins by examining commemorative poems that read Kuizhou's historical memory in local landmarks, decoding and rhetorically emulating great deeds of classical exemplars. The second chapter explores the shifting boundaries Du Fu draws between the customs of Kuizhou's local people and the orthodox ritual practices that defined his identity as a scholar-official. This is followed by an interlude that discusses poems on housework, in which domesticating projects spur reflection on poetry's capacity to create cultural value through commemoration. Chapter three turns to poems on paintings, arguing that for Du Fu painted images served as a vital support for memory of pre-rebellion court society, and that in writing on them he both drew upon and redefined a medieval visual aesthetic of craft and pictorial illusionism. The fourth and final chapter analyzes the rhetoric of narrative autobiographical poems, traditionally approached as non-figurative factual records, in order to elucidate Du Fu's retrospective construction of a self. A picture thus emerges of a body of work in which memory, mediated through material objects and practices, functioned to envision and rebuild frameworks of identity in an age of upheaval and transition. This study will contribute to a more critical understanding of a major poet, of the representation and uses of memory in traditional Chinese poetry, and of the emergence of new forms of expression and literati identity in late medieval China.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Swartz, Wendy
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 13, 2013