Song of Geshu Han

big dipper constellation in the northern skies

Song of Geshu Han

The Northern Dipper and its seven stars hang high in the sky

As Geshu stands ready with sword and knife

For now, the Tibetan cavalry watches and waits

Not daring to pass Lintao gate

General Geshu Han

Geshu Han (哥舒翰) was a Tang General of western Turkic origins. Geshu is the surname, the personal name, Han () may signify Chinese ethnicity, but this is likely symbolic.
General Geshu Han is famous for two events.

In 747, he was made general and achieved fame in western Lintao near Qinghai Lake, suppressing Tibetan raids on wheat farms and defeating Tibetan armies, restoring order to the western frontier of the Tang Empire.

With order restored, Geshu Han returned to the capital of Chang’an for health reasons.

In 755, General An Lushan revolted in the north. And a series of poor military decisions by the royal court forced Geshu Han into confronting General An Lushan on open ground with inferior numbers of troops.

Geshu Han and the Chinese were defeated.

General Geshu Han returned to Tong pass with his remaining troops and was prepared to defend against the advancing rebels, but he was betrayed by a subordinate and captured by the rebels and taken to Luoyang, the western capital of the Tang dynasty and the rebels headquarters. The rebels asked Geshu Han to encourage other generals to defect to the rebel cause and betray the emperor and he refused.

In 757, he was executed by the rebels along with 30 other Tang generals.

The Poet

西鄙人, Xī Bǐ​rén literally means  humble servant from the west. The poet’s actual name is unknown. Perhaps this short simple poem was composed by one of Geshu Han’s western soldiers who witnessed the disasters in the battles near the capital of Chang’an.

Mounted Chinese horseman, cavalry

Notes on the Song of Geshu Han

The Title, 哥 舒 歌, Gēshū gē, Song of Geshu.

Line one. 北斗, Běidǒu, Northern Dipper. The seven stars of the Big Dipper are a symbol in China of heavenly justice.

Line two, 刀 dāo, translates as a knife or sword. I have used both because of assonance. The Chinese character is also a near homophone and rhyme with 道 Dào, the philosophy of “The Way”.

Line three. Our humble poet does not identify the enemy by name, but we know the forces to be Tibetan. They are a cowering crowd, hidden, peeping at and watching Geshu’s horses who have been tethered for the night.  “For now, they wait and watch our horses.”

Lines two and four. “帶刀 dàidāo” and “臨洮 Líntáo”, a nice rhyme and play on words. Until recently, Lintao was commonly known as Didao (狄道). At various times Tibetan forces attacked the western city of Lintao, along the Silk Route, but were repulsed. Lintao is on the Tao River which makes sense.

Original Chinese and Pinyin






Gē shū gē

Běidǒu qīxīng gāo

gē shū yè dàidāo

zhìjīn kuī mù mǎ

bù gǎnguò líntáo

A fanjiang in the service of the Tang

Eight feet tall

His eyes are hard and purple as the Amethyst

His hair bristles like the hedgehog

Before his troops and mounted on his sturdy horse

He roars like a tiger

And scatters the enemy like sheep

Geshu Han on the vast Tibetan plain

The seven stars of the Dipper shine down

Like gods they smile or frown

At what they cannot change

At night Geshu Han carries his sword

The year is old, the days are short

The Tibetans have gone south

With their herds of horses and yak

Afraid to venture past Lintao

Tonight, across the valley the campfires grow cold

White tents flap in the breeze

And Geshu Han puts away his feather pen and folds his poem

He places it in his coat next to his heart

They cannot hurt him now

Tomorrow, Geshu Han heads north with 200,000 troops

To confront Cui Qianyou and An Lushan

At Tong Pass