Tu Fu’s most unreserved criticism of contemporary political and social corruption was expressed in an even greater poem, the poem in which he described his travels from the capital to Fênghsien County. This poem, formerly subjected to misdating and misinterpretation, was really not written before the eruption of the An Lu-shan rebellion. Although, when this poem was written, the T’ang emperor, Hsüan-tsung, and his imperial consort, Yang Kuei-fei, were wintering in comfort and luxury in the Hua Ch’ing Palace, a mountain resort in Li Shan away from the capital, the T’ang empire was far from being the utopian society that some of the court circles thought it was. Tu Fu, on arriving home, had heard of the tragic news of his youngest son’s starvation. His sense of deep personal bereavement immediately reminded him of the many injustice to which he had been subjected and the social iniquities which he had seen with his own eyes. It had also reminded him of the excessive luxury and unjustifiable extravagance he had witnessed at the winter capital through which hi had traveled on his trip home. Further restraint being now beyond him, he gave full expression to his feelings in this unprecedented indictment in the form of a long narrative entitled, “On My Way to Fênghsien County.”
The war drums were soon sounded in Yüyang, the center of the An Lu-shan rebellion, and Tu Fu was to enter his second period of literary production which ended with his relocation in Szechuan in 765. In this period of great confusion and reversal of the scales of value, Tu Fu’s powers of observation became keener, his art more realistic, his views more profound, and the vistas opened up in his poetry more comprehensive and humane. In this regard he was a forerunner of the poet with a social conscience.
When he was marooned in Ch’angan he was the different facets of the tragedy and plight of the imperial capital. These impressions were organized and recorded in two of his most famous poems. One was the “Lament of the River Bank” (“Ai Chiang-t’ou”) and the other was “Lamenting of the Imperial Heir” (“Ai Wâng-sun”). The first was a poem of twenty lines in which the poet described the Ch’üchiang, or the Winding River which skirted the city of Ch’angan. The second presented the sole remnant of the imperial family as an imaginary literary vehicle for the presentation in dialogue form of all the destruction and cruelty brought upon the imperial clan. By elaboration one episode in the life of an individual, the poet succeeded in recreation the general atmosphere surrounding the tragic fate of an imperial clan facing extinction. This technique of using a narrow canvas in suggesting the contents of a whole panorama was a technique begun by the writers of the ancient ballads but not brought to perfection until it was touched by the genius of Tu Fu. His concentration on one episode and, through that episode, his ability to create a well-rounded but unique impression, furnished the most effective means to arouse an intense emotional response on the part of his readers. This technique was not only consistently utilized by Tu Fu himself in his later narrative poems but also adopted by such leading poets of later generations as Po Chü-i (also Po Chü-yi) and Chang Chin in similar compositions. Thus was formed the common technique for the so-called New Lyrical Ballads or hsin yüeh-fu. Upon Tu Fu’s arrival at the emergency capital of Fênghsiang in 756, he had the written permission of the new emperor to go on a trip to Fuchou (in present-day Szechuan Province) to visit with his family. The experiences of this trip were woven into a long poem entitled “Pei Chêng” or “Northward Travels.” This poem was apparently an artistic effort beloved by the poet. The artistic attainment of this poem, however, was not as great as the labors that the poet had put into it. On the other hand, in the midst of many stretches which are prosaic descriptions in verse, the poem sparkles with a rare sense of humor and insight into human nature with contrast sharply with and palliate the innate feeling of tragedy.