Facing the Snow

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

Winter 757

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.

Tang dynasty, 8th century AD, three-color green glaze wine vessel – exhibited in Matsuoka Museum of Art, image from Wikipedia

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

对雪

战哭多新鬼
愁吟独老翁
乱云低薄暮
急雪舞回风

瓢弃尊无绿
炉存火似红
数州消息断
愁坐正书空

duì xuě

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.

If the Beatles met Du Fu

A bird of prey in the sky soaring high
Two white gulls on the river walking by
The predator, ready to strike, floating on the wind,
The prey, mewing, lazily rocking to and fro

Why is the grass wet with dew?
Why is a spider web untouched?
Heaven’s mysteries remain unanswered?
And I, stand alone, with ten thousand worries

Standing alone, Du Fu, circa 758

Hello Du Fu

If the 20th century British pop group The Beatles met 8th century poet and Chinese superstar, Du Fu what song and what poem would they care to share with one another?

For the Beatles I have chosen Let It Be and for Du Fu, Standing Alone.

When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be…

Let it be, The Beatles (1970)

Art is a shared experience. And a good song or poem is timeless. What words of wisdom do John, Paul, George and Ringo have for the deeply worried Du Fu? As you read along, ask yourself is Du Fu the seagull taken or left behind? (By 758, Du Fu’s career was descending.) Is John Lennon the Walrus? (A reference to the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour.) What am I, what are you? Is Du Fu the Confucian, seeking but never attaining perfection; are the Beatles disciples of Buddha, accepting?

Du Fu’s Original Chinese

獨立

空外一鷙鳥
河間雙白鷗
飄搖搏擊便
容易往來游

草露亦多濕
蛛絲仍未收
天機近人事
獨立萬端憂

In a Bamboo Grove, 竹裏館

Sitting alone, somewhere in a bamboo grove
Plucking on a zither, whistling along
Deep in the forest, where I can’t be found
At least, not until the bright moon shines

bamboo grove, 篁, huáng
somewhere in a bamboo grove, 篁裏 , huáng lǐ,
known only to me and the bright moon, 明月, míng yuè,
Wang Wei, 王維, 699–759

I Want to be Alone

We’re social critters who need to be strongly connected with other people. But, as every poet knows, solitude can be just as important. Space, we need space, and social distancing, but more than that sometimes we want to be alone, as Greta Garbo famously said.

Alone, Li Bai sat and watched Mt. Jiangshan. Alone, Du Fu sat in a grassy grove on a warm summer’s day. Wang Wei wrote at least two poems about being alone, one on an autumn night. And this one in a secluded bamboo grove, plucking a zither, whistling alone except for the moonlight.

Around the year 747, Wang Wei’s mother died. Wang Wei was then 48 years old. As a good son, devout Buddhist, and follower of Taoism, he retired from public life for a period of mourning at his family estate in Lantian County, Shaanxi province. He put the time to good use writing a collection of poems with Pei Di (裴迪) called Wangchuan Ji, or in English, the Wang River Collection or Wheel River Collection.

Chinese and Pinyin

竹裏館

獨坐幽篁裏
彈琴復長嘯
深林人不知
明月來相照

Zhú Lǐ Guǎn

Dú zuò yōu huáng lǐ
Dàn qín fù chángxiào
Shēn lín rén bù zhī
Míng yuè lái xiāng zhào

Today

Is this poem relevant today?

Think of Wang Wei as an ancient Henry David Thoreau walking the woods on Walden Pond. Or Ansel Adams taking pictures in the High Sierras. Songs – those of you looking for a 21st century connection can find many. Perhaps none better than Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again (1972). Prefer Chinese, try 王嘉爾 Jackson Wang, 一個人 Alone.

It’s a “Zenthing”

The poem is relatively straight forward, but I will give you my thoughts on translation as I differ in the last line with other translators.

From the title, Zhú Lǐ Guǎn, 竹裏館, we learn that Wang Wei has fashioned a secluded shelter in his bamboo grove. Guàn doing double-duty as a homophone for a Taoist place of worship. In line one, we find Wang sitting alone, 獨坐, Dú zuò. Where? Somewhere in a bamboo grove. 篁裏, huáng lǐ. acts here as an indistinct unit of measure, somewhere. In line two, we see and hear him plucking a zither, 琴, qín. No confusion there, a zither, the seven string Chinese Guqin. But 長嘯, chángxiào requires some explanation. Chángxiào is a Taoist transcendental whistling, a long-drawn out whistling that functions as a yogic exercise. A skillful whistler could, it is believed, summon animals or communicate with supernatural beings.

Perhaps, in Wang Wei’s case, he is whistling to his departed mother.

The real trickery is in the last line where Wang is hidden from all the world except for the all seeing bright moon. Only if one has walked in a deep dark forest does one know what Wang Wei means.

In other words, its a Zenthing.

Prior version from April 2018

Painting by Yu Zhiding 1647 – 1709

Autumn Meditations, 4, Du Fu

One hears, it’s said, Chang’an is a game of chess
A century of events beyond sorrow
Where princely palaces have new owners and
Civilian and military clothes have changed from the past
To the north of the mountain pass, gongs and drums sound
In the western campaign, wagons and horses and feathered dispatches are slowed
The dragons and fish are lonely, the autumn river is cold
My thoughts are always of the Motherland in peace

Emperor Xuanzong of Tang fleeing to Sichuan province from Chang'an, anonymous, original image wikipedia

Tang Emperor Xuanzong fleeing Chang’an, painting 11th century, anonymous

 

Motherland at War

In 756, Chang’an, capital of the Tang dynasty, the largest empire in the world, fell to the rebel forces of General An Lushan.

The Imperial  Chinese Emperor Xuanzong fled to Sichuan. There he abdicated in favor of his son, the new Emperor Suzong. Thereafter, between 757 and 763, Chang’an became a pawn in the battle between Imperial and rebel forces where moves and counter moves of the two armies were laid out as if on a chessboard. Flags were used in the day to signal troop movements. Gongs and drums were used at night, drums to attack, gongs to retreat. The continuous fighting went back and forth. Feathered dispatches indicated urgency, that is, thick and fast.

In war, delay spells the difference between success and failure in battle.

Chinese and Pinyin

秋兴八首 (四)

闻道长安似弈棋
百年世事不胜悲
王侯第宅皆新主
文武衣冠异昔时
直北关山金鼓振
征西车马羽书迟
鱼龙寂寞秋江冷
故国平居有所思

qiū xìng bā shǒu (sì)

wén dào cháng ān sì yì qí
bǎi nián shì shì bú shèng bēi
wáng hóu dì zhái jiē xīn zhǔ
wén wǔ yī guān yì xī shí
zhí běi guān shān jīn gǔ zhèn
zhēng xī chē mǎ yǔ shū chí
yú lóng jì mò qiū jiāng lěng
gù guó píng jū yǒu suǒ sī

Notes on translation

The Tang capital has fallen, the battle goes back and forth. Fleeing south, Du Fu is captured by the rebels and taken back to Chang’an where he witnesses the changes he writes about. He watches the horse drawn wagons lumber on and sees couriers with feathered dispatches flying off. Here and there one hears the reports of the campaign in the West (征西, zhēng xī).

One pauses for reflection at line seven.

Separately, the first two characters,  鱼龙 yú lóng, translate as fish and dragon. The dragon, , the symbol of the Tang emperor, the fish,  , of his people. 寂寞 jì mò, each indicate loneliness, together to an extreme, i.e. desolateness. The line concludes with 秋江冷 qiū jiāng lěng, the autumn river is cold, a familiar motif in Tang poems indicating that life was coming to an end.

A Verse – Du Fu

Two golden orioles sing in the emerald green willow,
One row of white egrets fly in the blue sky.

From my window to the west, I spy the snowy mountains of Xiling,
From my door to the east, come ships from far away.

oriole-2

A Pair of Golden Orioles Sing

Even the simplest poems present a challenge to the translator.

While we read the poet’s words, we do not see with his eyes, a two golden orioles, huangli. No doubt a pair, perched in the emerald-green willow, cuì liǔ. Are they courting, or have they mated, and now they feed their young?

Overhead a row of snowy egrets graceful in the sky. Perhaps, they are a symbol of purity, patience, and long life? And more, …perhaps, in the egrets, báilù, we recognize Du Fu’s fellow poets coming to seek his counsel.

We do not sense the distance to the snowy Xiling mountains that Du Fu views from his window. Nor do we appreciate that in the recent past An Lushan had come from the distant far away, qian qiu, north.

A life of study – hán chuāng

For those interested in chronology, we can date this poem to the period when Du Fu took up residence in Chengdu. For starters, this is December of 759 AD, when, trying to avoid the vicissitudes of war and political intrigue, he built a thatched cottage. In 762 he left because of a rebellion but returned in 764, and left the following year.

Life is not always easy. The poet knows that a life of strenuous studies, hán chuāng 寒窗, is what it takes. This applies to the translator as well.

Pinyin and Chinese

Jue Ju

Liǎng gè huánglí míng cuì liǔ
Yīxíng báilù shàng qīngtiān.

Chuāng hán xī lǐng qiānqiū xuě
Mén pō dōng wú wànlǐ chuán.

绝 句

两 个 黄 鹂 鸣 翠 柳
一 行 白 鹭 上 青 天。

窗 含 西 岭 千 秋 雪
门 泊 东 吴 万 里 船。

clouds-mountain

Yuhua Palace, 玉華宮

A winding stream, the smell of pine in the wind,
A gray rat flees under ancient tiles.
I don’t know whose royal palace is this,
Mislaid beneath steep cliffs.

In dark rooms ghostly fires glow green,
A sorrowful stream flows over a broken path.
A million sounds from the earth are the true flutes and reeds
Autumn is sprinkled in colors positively sad.

Palace beauties have turned into yellow dust,
And what’s more, scattered are their powders and paints.
Where once they awaited a glorious golden chariot,
Now, of those things, only the stone horse remains.

Cares come, and to the grass I sink,
Singing loudly, while tears fill my hands.
On and on, a traveler slowly on his way
But who is he who lives forever?

Shaanxi

What

Du Fu’s Yuhua Palace is an example of huaigu 懷古, a reflection on things past, a type of nostalgia recognizing the transitory nature of all things. Death comes to us all. Palace beauties turn into dust, and of golden chariots, only the statues of horse remain. The Roman and Latin equivalent is Sic transit gloria mundi, Thus passes the glory of the world.

When

The generally accepted date for this poem is 757. If correct, then it was written during the An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763), after the fall of the capital of Chang’an, when all of China was in chaos. If we attempt to be more specific with the date, it may have been written during that period of time when Du Fu was granted leave by the Imperial court in exile to visit his family. Du Fu would continue to write poems in the Qiang Village where his family waited out the rebellion.

Where

Yuhua Palace, in far western Shaanxi province, built in 647 by Emperor Taizong as a Summer Palace. In 651, it was converted into a temple where the Buddhist master Xuanzang (602-664) lived and died, working on translating Indian Buddhist texts.

Shaanxi province on the edge of the Huangtu Plateau (literally, Yellow Earth plateau), is the location of the terra cotta army that contains vast numbers of statues of soldier and horses. .

Notes on translating Yuhua Palace

The first four lines seem straight forward. Du Fu approaches the ruins of the ancient palace walking along a meandering stream. In the air is the wind blown scent of pine trees, 松 風, sōng fēng, literally pine and wind, wind in the pines, or, as I prefer, the scent of pine in the wind. The palace is empty, save the gray rats that scurry in the ruins.

In the fifth line, Du Fu makes reference to a green ghostly fire, 鬼 火, guǐ huǒ. This may refer to the phosphorescence sometimes seen in caves or more likely to sighting the will o wisp, an atmospheric ghostly light travelers often see at night in marshy areas. Du Fu then refers to a myriad of natural vents in the earth that emit a sound similar to two types of Chinese flutes, and 竽, shēng and .

In line nine, Du Fu remarks that the palace beauties have all turned to yellow dust, 黃土, huángtǔ, literally yellow earth . This is a popular Chinese belief that the Yellow Earth is made up of the Chinese people. The historic northern boundary of China is the Yellow River, 黄河, Huáng Hé.

Again, in line 9, Du Fu uses the Chinese characters 美人, měi rén, which should be translated as a lady or as a consort. Such ladies would be escorted about the area in a golden chariot drawn by horses. Now, the ladies are gone, turned to yellow dust, the wooden chariots gone, and the only thing remaining, are the famous statues of terra cotta horses.

In the last four lines, Du Fu becomes thoughtful. Overcome with sorrow, he sinks to the ground, and begins to sing loudly, we assume using a Buddhist chant, tears welling up in his eyes, his hands clasped together in prayer.

Then, Du Fu acknowledges that he too is a lonely traveler, and that life is transitory.

Chinese text

玉華宮

溪回松風長
蒼鼠竄古瓦
不知何王殿
遺構絕壁下

陰房鬼火青
壞道哀湍瀉
萬籟真笙竽
秋色正蕭灑

美人為黃土
況乃粉黛假
當時侍金輿
故物獨石馬


憂來藉草坐
浩歌淚盈把
冉冉征途間
誰是長年者

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.

Qiang Village 2 – Du Fu

An old man marking time,
Returning home, his joys are few.
My darling son clutches my knee,
Dreading that I will leave again.
I remember when we sought out cool spots,
And walked among the trees beside the pool.
Now, the North Wind’s whistling is strong,
And I’ve a hundred different worries.
At least, I know, the wheat harvest goes well,
Already, I catch the drip of the mash-press
For now, there is enough to fill my cup,
Comfort for one near the end.

china mountains river

May you live in interesting times

There is an apocryphal quote attributed to the ancient Chinese that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” The quote was intended as a curse, predicting and hoping that one’s wish for excitement will be of the worst kind.

This curse explains the life of Du Fu at the time of Tang China’s An Lushan Rebellion.

For a period of eight years beginning in 755, China experienced the horror of war and famine the likes of which it had not experienced before on such a massive scale. Barbarians invaded from the north, the emperor fled, the capital fell, the dynasty teetered on the edge of collapse, the peasant caught in the middle of the conflict starved or was impressed into the war, the outcome was always in doubt. If we take the census records as an accounting of the damage done, then China lost more than half its population in the span of these terrible 8 years.

Du Fu in a time of war

Du Fu was an accomplished poet and mediocre civil servant, as his head-strong ways often rubbed administrators and the emperor the wrong way. Nevertheless he was tolerated for his great poetic abilities. When the capital of Chang’an fell, Du Fu had been away. Asa precaution, he took his family to a Qiang village where his newborn son died, then attempted to join the court of the new emperor, but he was captured by the rebels and taken to Chang’an. He escaped after several months and made his way to the court in exile in Sichuan.

That fall the Imperial Court gave him leave to visit his family, which is the source of the three poems entitled Qiang Village.

If the first poem was about the surprise of one finding his way home and the joy felt at homecoming, then the second is about the fleeting nature of that joy. We enjoy what little comfort we can find while living in such interesting times.

At the end of his life, Du Fu was the proverbial peripatetic poet. He died in 768, five years after the rebellion was put down. At the time he was living in Hunan Province. He was survived by his wife and two remaining sons.

Pinyin and Chinese

qiāng cūn ( èr)

wǎn suì pò tōu shēng
huán jiā shǎo huān qù
jiāo ér bù lí xī
wèi wǒ fù què qù
yì xī hǎo zhuī liáng
gù rào chí biān shù
xiāo xiāo běi fēng jìn
fǔ shì jiān bǎi lǜ
lài zhī hé shǔ shōu
yǐ jué zāo chuáng zhù
rú jīn zú zhēn zhuó
qiě yòng wèi chí mù

羌村 (二)

晚岁迫偷生
还家少欢趣
娇儿不离膝
畏我复却去
忆昔好追凉
故绕池边树
萧萧北风劲
抚事煎百虑
赖知禾黍收
已觉糟床注
如今足斟酌
且用慰迟暮

Qiang Village 1 – Du Fu

Above the lofty mountains the western sky is red,
Below, the sun sets on the peaceful valley.
A sparrow chirps at the wicker gate,
I return from a trip of a thousand li.
My wife and children shocked to see me,
Then calm themselves and wipe their tears.
I drifted through this disordered life and,
By chance I have survived its ordeal.
The neighbors lean over the wall and,
They too cry and weep.
Late at night we bring out flickering candles and,
Face each other like in a dream.

sunset mountains

This is the first poem in a series of three written by Du Fu (杜甫) at the age of 45. The poems were written in 757 in a Qiang village (羌村) where Du Fu had taken his family as a place of refuge during the troubles of the An Lushan Rebellion.



Tang China 757

Under threat by the rebellious General An Lushan in 756, the Imperial court fled the capital of Chang’an for Sichuan. In January of 757 AD, An Lushan was killed by his own son An Qingxu. At the fortress of Suiyang, the Tang forces fought to the death. Though the rebels won, the tide had turned in the war against the rebels.

Du Fu like other poets of the period was caught up in the troubles of the An Lushan Rebellion. At the time the rebels captured Chang’an, Du Fu had luckily been away, but he was subsequently captured and taken to the rebel held Chang’an. In 757, he escaped and made his way south to the court in exile. In September he was granted leave to see his family and his new son, Du Zongwu (Baby Bear).

Qiang Village

Du Fu does not identify the Qiang village where his family lived. The Qiang people (羌族) generally refers to a small ethnic minority that lived in a mountainous region in northwestern Sichuan at the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

“Above the lofty mountains the western sky is red.” To the common people, red symbolizes good fortune and, it is believed, red lanterns ward off evil. Thus, our tiny Qiang village has the good fortune of being far from the war, but, as we shall see in poem 2, also suffers pain that accompanies war.

Chinese and Pinyin


qiāng cūn (yī)

zhēng róng chì yún xī
rì jiǎo xià píng dì
chái mén niǎo què zào
guī kè qiān lǐ zhì
qī nú guài wǒ zài
jīng dìng hái shì lèi
shì luàn zāo piāo dàng
shēng huán ǒu rán suì
lín rén mǎn qiáng tóu
gǎn tàn yì xū xī
yè lán gèng bǐng zhú
xiāng duì rú mèng mèi

羌村 (一)

峥嵘赤云西
日脚下平地
柴门鸟雀噪
归客千里至
妻孥怪我在
惊定还拭泪
世乱遭飘荡
生还偶然遂
邻人满墙头
感叹亦歔欷
夜阑更秉烛
相对如梦寐