In the battle’s aftermath, many spirits cry,
Alone, an old man hums his worrisome chant.
Confusion sets in amid the clouds at dusk,
A violent snow dances in the swirling wind
There lies an abandoned ladle and an empty green jug,
But the stove still looks fiery red.
With bad news from many places
I sit in grief, but cannot read my books
Imagine, it is the winter of 757, Chang’an, Shanxi province, China in the age of the Tang dynasty..
General An Lushan and his rebel army, having begun a revolt against the Tang dynasty in December of 756, have, by now, taken Chang’an, the Tang capital. The defeated Emperor Xuanzong has fled to Sichuan. The poet Du Fu has taken his family to safety, but now, trying to reach Sichuan, he is captured by rebel forces, and taken back to Chang’an.
You are left behind in the devastated Tang capital of Chang’an. For months, the rebel forces have pillaged and looted. Long caravans are hauling away the loot to the North.
You are Chinese poet Du Fu, 45 years old, now left to face enemy and the snow alone. And in this cold and empty place, he cannot read his books.
Meanwhile, back in the USA
Here in the Midwest, we are facing a terrifically cold winter weather system. The blowing snow and bitter cold make for dangerous conditions. The weather has been unusually cold in February of 2021. Even Dallas, Texas has experienced 0 degree weather, along with rolling black outs as the demand for energy rises.
Perhaps not as cold as China’s Shaanxi province, where the Tang capital Chang’an was located. Nor as cold as the three Chinese states — Pinglu, Fanyang and Hedong, north of Chang’an, north of the Yangtze, bordering Mongolia, where General An Lushan was military commander.
Temperatures there,. in January and February, dip down below zero into double digits, which is what we are now experiencing. The wind too is unusually strong, and the falling snow when swirling is quite a sight.
Here in the Midwest, for two days, the clouds filled the sky. The wind whipped up the snow, not quite a blizzard but close. Not a creature stirred outside. Then, yesterday, the sun came back, there was no wind, and the squirrels scrambled down from their nest in the large oak tree outside my window to look for sunflower seeds that I had left for the birds.
My water pipes had burst and I had to resort to melting snow. My predicament lasted only a day.
Du Fu’s predicament reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode Time Enough to Last* (1959). This black and white episode starred Burgess Meredith as a much heckled bank teller and bookworm who couldn’t get enough time to read. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, he finds himself in a bank vault and the only one left on the planet.
Now he has time enough to read, but in a moment of happiness, he drops his glasses and steps on them, and is left bereft and full of grief.
Meanwhile, in 8th century Britain
The Roman empire collapsed in the 5th century and Britain, as well as most of Europe, entered the Dark Ages. Dark because there is little literature to explain what was going on and what people were thinking.
Take for example the life of King Offa who ruled from 757 until his death in 796. But nothing down of him, and little remains but a few coins and Offa’s Dyke.
We do have the works of the Venerable Bede, but most of his works are religious, and many of these are lost. Ballads were told in the Saxon Great Halls, but these were oral. Beowulf, a Norse tale, can be dated within a three hundred year span, from 700 AD to 1000 AD. Fortunately for us, it was then written down with some Christian add-ons. A century later King Alfred the Great caused the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to be written and history was saved.
This is not to say that those who lived in 8th century Britain did not experience emotions similar to Du Fu. Between the fussing and feuding, and barely surviving, they had good days and bad, experiencing both joy and grief. I would refer those interested to check out The Wanderer and The Ruin, whose writing predates the Norman Invasion, but by how much, is unknown.
Notes on Translations
The title 对雪, duì xuě, in English becomes Facing the Snow, or Snowstorm. It is an obvious euphemism for facing one’s difficulties. The snow, a reference to General An Lushan, whose rebel forces came from the cold snowy North.
The early part of the rebellion went badly for the Tang forces. Defeat followed defeat, tens of thousands of soldiers died. Millions of citizens were displaced. Ghosts roamed the battlefields and an old man, Du Fu, made his worrisome chant. Du Fu followed Buddhism, but he must have felt confused and lost, trying to make his way between the competing forces. He was no more than a single snowflake caught up in the maelstrom, blown about, dancing in the wind.
The fifth line,. 瓢弃尊无绿, piáo qì zūn wú lǜ, literally translates as “abandoned ladle, nothing in the green wine jug”. To abandon the ladle is to give up all sense of civilized behavior. Zun (尊) is the wine vessel. Its color is green lǜ, 绿 being the most highly prized color, a sign of status. By implication, the capital is empty of members of the royal court. Compare Du Fu’s line with the Chinese idiom, wú yōu wú lǜ, 无忧无虑 , without worries and care free, a French or Spanish, “Comme Ci, Comme Ça.” Compare lǜle lǜle, 绿了, 虑了, are you green are you worried? In Du Fu’s case, the well known imbiber of wine is not so worried that he must drink without a lad.e, but that the pot of wine is empty.
Line six, wait the fire is still going and seems to be red, hóng 红, a sign of joy and one to ward off evil demons.
Line seven, shù zhōu, 数州, literally, several states, referring to the several Chinese provinces fending for themselves against the rebel forces. One either gets the sense of “no news,” 消息, xiāo xī, or that the news is “decidedly bad,” 断, duàn, which implies that Du Fu is cut off from events elsewhere.
Du Fu’s coup de grâce
Du Fu’s ending twist, his coup de grâce, in that cold and empty place, is like that which befalls Burgess Meredith’s character, he cannot read his books!
Chinese and Pinyin
zhàn kū duō xīn guǐ
chóu yín dú lǎo wēng
luàn yún dī bó mù
jí xuě wǔ huí fēng
piáo qì zūn wú lǜ
lú cún huǒ sì hóng
shù zhōu xiāo xī duàn
chóu zuò zhèng shū kōng
- Adapted from a short story written by Lynn Venable in January 1953 for the science fiction magazine If: Worlds of Science Fiction.