In those days of apparent peace and prosperity, the pride of the world was the powerful Yang family. The main pillar of the Yang house was the beautiful Yang Yühuan, the imperial consort elevated to the position of kuei-fei, or noble consort. Her cousin, Yang Kuo-chung, had been made prime minister and her two sisters had been ennobled the Princess of Kuo and the Princess of Ch’in. It was the sparkling brilliance of these girls of the Yang family which supplied Tu Fu with the theme of his “Li-jên Hsing” or “The Ballad of the Beauties.”

麗人行 杜甫

In satirizing the excessive power of the imperial relatives, the poet clearly maintained large measures of artistic restraint. He could have but did not say more. In spite of the semblance of peace and prosperity latent troubles all along the frontier were already obvious. Disturbances of a political as well as a military nature were being created by the Khitan, His, and Turkic tribes in the north and by the Turfans in the west, each ravaging and plundering frontier towns, periodically necessitating many a punitive expedition. For the year 751 a major military defeat of the Chinese imperial forces was registered in their attempt to quell a rebellion of barbarian tribes in Yünnan. The fatalities involved had mounted to sixty thousand. When imperial rescripts were issued to the citizens of the two metropolitan districts and to Honan and Hopei for volunteers for rebuilding the expeditionary force, popular reaction was completely negative. Consequently the prime minister, Yang Ku-chung, instructed the agencies of the imperial censorate to resort to pressure and violence in obtaining recruits, and injustices and corruption became widespread. The resentment of the common people which Tu Fu had witnessed was well expressed in his “Ballad of the war Chariot.” When we compare this poem with Li Po’s “Fighting Sough of the City” we see clearly that Li Po’s was an imitation of ancient ballads and Tu Fu’s poem was an indictment of current politics. Indictments as bold and unadorned as this were something new since the age of the Book of Song. In this light we might say that Tu Fu was a founder of a new tradition. Even some of the folk songs and literary ballads descriptive of the destructiveness of war do not measure up to the directness and clarity that Tu Fu had exhibited in accusing the government and even the emperor of misrule:

This mention of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty to dull the edges of criticism against the reigning T’ang emperor did not carry boldness to the extreme. In “The Ballad of the Beauties” the Princesses of Kuo and Ch’in were forthrightly mentioned by name.

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