The Ballad of War Carts (兵車行), Du Fu

A constant rumble of war carts
And never ending horse whinnies
Soldiers with bows at their waists
Fathers and mothers, wives and children rushing to see them
In the dust and dirt one cannot see Xianyang bridge
Pulling clothes, stamping feet, blocking the way and weeping
The sound of weeping rising above to heaven
Along the wayside a passerby asks a soldier
The soldier’s simply replies, we are called up often
Some of us, at fifteen, were sent north to guard the river
And then, til forty, went west to farm for the army
Each time we left, the village head wrapped our heads in cloth
Coming back our hair was white, still we manned the borders
At the border outpost, the flow of blood fed the ocean waters
Emperor Wu’s desire to conquer more had not yet ceased
Sir, have you not heard, that in the Han empire there are 200 prefectures east of the mountains
And now a thousand villages and ten thousand hamlets are overgrown with briars and thorns
And even there are women healthy enough to plow
The crops planted in the fields are in disorder
Since the dynasty of Qin, how can a soldier endure such bitter warfare
Driven on, no different than like dogs or chickens
You sir may ask
But a soldier dare not state his resentment
For example, this winter
At Guanxi, soldiers have not yet been relieved
While county tax officials seek new taxes
But where will these taxes come from?
It’s true, I know, to bear a son is bad
Bearing a daughter, I can marry her to a neighbor
Bearing a son, he will be buried in the midst of a hundred grasses
Sir, have you not seen the shores of Lake Qinghai
Where white bones lie and no man comes to collect them
Where new ghosts are troubled by the cries of the old
The sky is gray, it rains, it’s wet, and all about, the sound of constant wailing

terra cotta soldiers
Terra-cotta soldiers of Qin dynasty

The history behind Du Fu’s Ballad of War Carts

This rather long poem by Du Fu tells the story of the common peasant who is conscripted into the Chinese army and sent away for years to serve the emperor. Wisely, Du Fu has chosen to place this story in the Han dynasty during the 54 year reign of Emperor Wu, 武皇 (157 BC – 87 BC). It was a time of expansion to the west, the north, the south, and into the Korean peninsula. Obviously, this increased the prestige and power of Emperor Wu, but only at the expense of the peasant who was conscripted for years on end, and saw his land ruined by taxes and neglect.

Place Names

The River, line 10, (河, hé) the Yellow River (huáng hé 黄河), considered the cradle of Chinese civilization.

Xianyang and Xianyang bridge in line five refers to the city of Xianyang, the capital of the Qin dynasty that preceded the Han dynasty. In 1974 farmers digging wells east of Xianyang, found a buried vault containing a terra-cotta army of life-size figures, including warriors, horses, and wooden chariots. The mention of 200 prefectures east of the mountains refers to the fact that the majority of Han Chinese lived east of the capital.

In 2012, the 2,000 year old remains of the largest wooden bridge in the world was discovered at ancient Xianyang. This may have been the bridge that Du Fu refers to (China People’s Daily, July 30, 2012).

Han and Qin Dynasty – The Han dynasty was China’s second imperial dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), preceded by the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). Much like the Tang dynasty, the four centuries of the Han emperors was considered a Golden Age in China.

Guanxi (關西) – the area west of Hangu Pass, separating the upper Yellow River and Wei River valleys. I was the site of many battles, thus the earlier reference to blood that flows into the ocean.

Lake Qinghai (青海) – a shallow alkaline lake on the Tibetan plateau. The province of Qinhai is the source of the Yellow River. During the Tang dynasty an area contested by Tibetan and Chinese forces. Alkaline lakes bleach bones white.

Terra-cotta army Xianyang

Pinyin and original Chinese

車轔轔
馬蕭蕭
行人弓箭各在腰
爺孃妻子走相送
塵埃不見咸陽橋
牽衣頓足攔道哭
哭聲直上干雲霄
道旁過者問行人
 行人但云點行頻
 或從十五北防河
便至四十西營田
 去時里正與裹頭
 歸來頭白還戍邊
邊亭流血成海水
武皇開邊意未已
君不聞漢家山東二百州
千村萬落生荊杞
縱有健婦把鋤犁
禾生隴畝無東西
況復秦兵耐苦戰
被驅不異犬與雞
長者雖有問
役夫敢申恨
且如今年冬
 未休關西卒
縣官急索租
租稅從何出
信知生男惡
生女猶得嫁比鄰
生男埋沒隨百草
君不見青海頭
古來白骨無人收
新鬼煩冤舊鬼哭
天陰雨濕聲啾啾

chē lín lín

mǎ xiāo xiāo

xíng rén gōng jiàn gè zài yāo

yè niáng qī zǐ zǒu xiāng song

chén āi bú jiàn xiān yáng qiáo

qiān yī dùn zú lán dào kū

kū shēng zhí shàng gān yún xiāo

dào páng guò zhě wèn xíng rén

xíng rén dàn yún diǎn xíng pín

huò cóng shí wǔ běi fāng hé

biàn zhì sì shí xī yīng tián

qù shí lǐ zhèng yǔ guǒ tóu

guī lái tóu bái hái shù biān

biān tíng liú xuě chéng hǎi shuǐ

wǔ huáng kāi biān yì wèi yǐ

jūn bù wén hàn jiā shān dōng ér bǎi zhōu

qiān cūn wàn luò shēng jīng qǐ

zòng yǒu jiàn fù bǎ chú lí

hé shēng lǒng mǔ wú dōng xī

kuàng fù qín bīng nài kǔ zhàn

bèi qū búyì quǎn yǔ jī

zhǎng zhě suí yǒu wèn

yì fū gǎn shēn hèn

qiě rú jīn nián dōng

wèi xiū guānxī zú

xiàn guān jí suǒ zū

zū shuì cóng hé chū

xìn zhī shēng nán è

shēng nǚ yóu dé jià bǐ lín

shēng nán mái mò suí bǎi cǎo

jūn bú jiàn qīnghǎi tóu

gǔ lái bái gǔ wú rén shōu

xīn guǐ fán yuān jiú guǐ kū tiān yīn yǔ shī shēng jiū

Notes on translating the Title

Every translator takes some liberties with translation. I have done so with the title, Ballad of War Darts. Du Fu’s original title, 兵車行, Bīng chē xíng, obviously rhymes. The first two characters, 兵車 are a compound which in modern parlance translates to an armored personnel carrier, but in the era of the Tang dynasty, a war cart, pulled by horses, transporting supplies. To this Du Fu adds the character , xíng, which does not mean ballad as many translators choose. Actually, it is a verb meaning go.

For this reason, one could choose the title, As War Carts Go, and remain closer to the Du Fu’s original meaning.

Taking down a trellis – Du Fu

Taking down a trellis

Already, the sticks I tied are withered and falling,
The calabash leaves are thin and sparse.

Luckily the white flowers have born their fruit,
And peacefully the green leaves have faded.

Autumn insects speak not a sound,
What’s must sparrows think at dusk?
For bitter cold is now our prison;
So, Life too has such beginnings.

gourd and leaves

Autumn 759, Tang dynasty

The Tang Dynasty lasted from 618 to 907. This is often referred to as the golden age of Chinese history. This prosperous time was interrupted by the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) which caused the capital of Chang’an to fall, the emperor to flee to the south, along with massive human casualties before the succeeding emperor Suzong began the process of reestablishing imperial rule.

The poet Du Fu suffered throughout the rebellion, though he realized that his troubles were little when compared to the peasant. He escaped the capital and made his way to the imperial court in exile. In 757, he was given leave to visit his family in a Qiang village Du Fu had placed his family for safety. There he wrote three poems title Qiang Village 1, 2, and 3.

Late in 757, Du Fu returned to Chang’an along with the imperial court . He was then given a position of some importance, but this lasted only until the summer as Du Fu was one who spoke freely, and sound advice is not always well taken. Thus, Du Fu was relegated to remote Huazhou where he was made Commissioner of Education, a post not to his liking.

Qiang Village

In the spring or summer of 759, Du Fu moved on to Qinzhou (Tianshui, Gansu province), west of the capital of Chang’an, where he wrote more than sixty poems including the one above. In a way this has brought Du Fu full circle to the Qiang village where his family had sought safety during the worst of the An Lushan rebellion.

Poem’s meaning

The poem Taking down the Trellis is best understood by a gardener who sees and understands the cycle of life. The trellis refers three or more staked sticks, the technique of raising the vines off the ground so that insects and ground animals will not eat the fruit.

Du Fu picked the calabash 瓠 to grow on the trellis. The calabash is a traditional Chinese vegetable consumed when young and used as utensils when mature. The gourd being smaller than a pumpkin is lighter and the vine can grow in a pot or staked to sticks tied together to save space.

Pinyin and Chinese

chú jià

shù xīn yǐ líng luò
hù yè zhuǎn xiāo shū
xìng jiē bái huā liǎo
nìng cí qīng màn chú


qiū chóng shēng bú qù
mù què yì hé rú
hán shì jīn láo luò
rén shēng yì yǒu chū

除架

束薪已零落
瓠叶转萧疏
幸结白花了
宁辞青蔓除


秋虫声不去
暮雀意何如
寒事今牢落
人生亦有初

Notes on translation

除架, chú jià, the title, literally means removing the frame, or in this case the sticks that hold up the vine, poetically, taking down the trellis. 寒事, Hán shì, this “cold thing” I translate to bitter cold, also may refers to the Han dynasty, an earlier dynasty of four centuries that also succumbed. 牢落, láo luò, seems to have two meanings, “prison” and “fasten”; 落 luò, maning leaving behind, suggesting the idea of leaving our earthly world (prison) behind.

人生 rén shēng means life, one’s time on earth.

Qiang people

The Qiang 羌 people (the Chinese character 羌 is itself a combination of sheep 羊 and a man 人) is an ancient term for pastoral nomads who lived in the west on the border with Tibet. This would have given Du Fu an affinity for the people based on his own itinerant life.