Regarded as a major poet during a golden age of Chinese poetry, his name is often mentioned together with that of another renowned Late Tang poet, Li Shangyin, as the Little Li-Du (小李杜), in contrast to the Great Li-Du: Li Bai and Du Fu. Among his influences were Du Fu, Li Bai, Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan.
Du Mu was born in Chang'an (modern Xi'an) into an elite family whose fortunes were declining. His grandfather was Du You, a minister at the Tang court and the compiler of the Tang Dynasty encyclopedia Tongdian. He passed the jinshi ("Presented Scholar") level of the imperial civil service examination in 828 at the age of 25, and began his career as a bureaucrat, first as an editor of at the Institute for the Advancement of Literature. A few months later, he joined the entourage of Shen Chuanshi (沈傳師), a survellance commissioner, first to Hongzhou, then a year later to Xuanzhou. In 833 he was sent to join Niu Sengru in Yangzhou. In Yangzhou he began to mature as a poet. In 835 he was appointed investigating censor and returned to the capital where, possibly concerned about being drawn into a factional dispute involving his friend Li Gan who had opposed Zheng Zhu, he asked to be transferred to Luoyang. This was granted, and he avoided the purge that followed the Sweet Dew Incident which happened later in the year.
Du Mu held many official positions in various locales through the years, but he never achieved a high rank, perhaps due to enemies made in the factional dispute in 835. In 837 he returned to Yangzhou to care for his younger brother Mu Yi who was sick and had become blind, then went to work in Xuanzhou, taking his brother with him. In 838 he was appointed Rectifier of Omission of the Left and Senior Compiler of the History Office, and he returned to Chang'an. In 840 he was promoted to Vice Director of the Catering Bureau, then transferred to the position of Vice Director of the Board of Review in 841. Starting in 842 he was made governor of a succession of small poor rural prefectures, first Huangzhou, then Chizhou and Muzhou. Du was dissatisfied with the appointment and he appeared to blame it on Li Deyu. He began to feel his career was a failure and he expressed his dissatisfaction in his poems.
In 848 Du Mu returned to Chang'an after being appointed Vice Director of Merit Titles and was awarded his old post in the History Office. He was transferred to the post of the Vice Director of the Ministry of Personnel in 849, then was appointed governor of Huzhou in 850 at his own request. He was recalled to Chang'an in 851 to the post of Director of the Bureau of Evaluation and Drafter, and was appointed to the office of Secretariat and Drafter in 852. He fell ill that winter and died before the next lunar year.
Du Mu was skilled in shi, fu and ancient Chinese prose. He is best known as the writer of sensual, lyrical quatrains featuring historical sites or romantic situations, and often the themes of separation, decadence, or impermanence. His style blends classical imagery and diction with striking juxtapositions, colloquialisms, or other wordplay. He also wrote long narrative poems, as well as a commentary on the Art of War and many letters of advice to high officials.
One of his best-known poetry is "Qingming Festival" (Qingming Festival is a day of remembrance for the dead when people visit the graves of their ancestors to pay respect.)
- Qingming Festival
On day of Qingming Festival, a drizzly rain falls.
On the road, the traveller, disconsolate.
Enquiring, where can an inn be found?
A cowherd boy points, far away, to Apricot Blossom Village.
Another well-known one is Autumn Evening. It tells of a lonely concubine at the palace whose fan has lost its purpose now that summer has ended. This is taken to be an allusion by the poet of his frustrations at his family's decline in influence. The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd stars in the poem refers to the story of two separated lovers who can only meet once a year:
- Autumn Evening
Silvery candle, autumnal light, chills the painted screen
With small fan, of light silk gauze, she swipes at the flitting fireflies
On the palace steps, the night is cool, like water
Laying down, she gazes, the Weaving Girl and Cowherd stars
In 1968, Roger Waters of the rock band Pink Floyd borrowed lines from his poetry to create the lyrics for the song Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun from the band's second album A Saucerful of Secrets. "Lotuses lean on each other in yearning" (多少綠荷相倚恨)
- Owen, Stephen (2006). The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century (827-860). Harvard University Asia Center. p. 260. ISBN 978-0-674-03328-3.
- Owen, Stephen (2006). The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century (827-860). Harvard University Asia Center. p. 271-272. ISBN 978-0-674-03328-3.
- Owen, Stephen (2006). The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century (827-860). Harvard University Asia Center. p. 289. ISBN 978-0-674-03328-3.
- Red Pine, Poems of the Masters, Copper Canyon Press, 2003.
- Zhu, Jincheng, "Du Mu". Encyclopedia of China (Chinese Literature Edition), 1st ed.
- Nienhauser, William H (ed.). The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature. Indiana University Press 1986. ISBN 0-253-32983-3
- Francis, Mark. Running Under the Ice: Fifty Selected Poems by Du Mu. Oxcidental Press 2012. ISBN 978-1-4681-2831-4.
- Brief introduction to Du Mu
- Ten poems of Du Mu included in 300 Selected Tang poems, translated by Witter Bynner
- Du Mu's poems (in Simplified Chinese)
- Du Mu's seven-character truncated verses