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 (翰) 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.
西鄙人, Xī Bǐrén 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.
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