Li Bai – Ballad of Four Seasons: Winter

“The messenger rides, she’s told, at first light
So, she sews a warrior’s cloak throughout the night
Her fingers tired, the needle cold
How can one hold the scissors tight?
Now the coat is done, she sends it away, and says,
‘How many days to Lintao?’ “

The poem explained

In the fourth and last of Li Bai’s seasonal ballads, the poet places us in a woman’s chamber in Chang’an, the Tang capital. The woman is sewing a warm cloak (征袍) for her warrior husband. He is serving with General Geshu Han in mountainous Lintao County (臨洮) on the Tibetan border. The messenger leaves at first light ( 明朝 ), so she must hurry to complete her task in spite of the cold.

Li Bai manages to capture the three emotions of love, devotion, and worry in this simple poem.

The original Chinese poem, as seen by the Pinyin translation, is more poetic, that is rhythmic and rhyming, than the English translation.

Enjoy!

Original Chinese and Pinyin

明朝驛使發
素手抽針冷
一夜絮征袍
那堪把剪刀
裁縫寄遠道
幾日到臨洮

Pinyin

Míng cháo yì shǐ fā
yīyè xù zhēng páo
sùshǒu chōu zhēn lěng
nà kān bǎ jiǎndāo
cáiféng jì yuǎndào
jǐ rì dào líntáo

General Geshu Han

General Geshu Han was of Turkic descent. He is famous for two events.

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

The second event occurred during the An Lushan Rebellion that began in 755. General Geshu Han was sent to the strategic Tong Pass (Tongguan) to guard against the invading rebel forces. Though outnumbered, he followed orders and engaged the rebels, suffering a devastating defeat that led to his capture and the fall of the Tang capital at Chang’an.

General Geshu Han refused to cooperate with the rebels and was later executed.

Li Bai

Li Bai, also known as Li Bo or Li Po, of the High Tang period, 701-762.

Li is a common surname in Chinese and means plum. The personal name Bai means white. Li Bai (701–762) was one of the superstar poets of the Tang dynasty. His career took a decided turn for the worse during the An Lushan Rebellion. He was captured by the rebels and held captive in the capital of Chang’an, but managed to escape a year later.

He died in 762, shortly before the rebellion was put down. Legend has it that he drank and drowned after falling from a boat, attempting to catch the moon’s reflection in a river.

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

Gē shū gē

Běidǒu qīxīng gāo
gē shū yè dàidāo
zhìjīn kuī mù mǎ
bù gǎnguò líntáo

哥舒歌

北斗七星高
哥舒夜帶刀
至今窺牧馬
不敢過臨洮

General Geshu Han

Geshu Han (哥舒翰, died December 1, 757) was a Tang general who achieved distinction fighting in western Qinghai province against Tibetan forces.

At the time, Tibetan armies regularly ravaged Chinese farmers at harvest time. As harvest approached in the year 747, Geshu Han hid his forces in the hills and when the Tibetan soldiers arrived, they were surrounded and wiped out, ending the Tibetan raids for a while.

The following year, Geshu Han established a garrison at Qinghai Lake and built Yinglong Castle (應龍城) on an island on the lake itself. The Tibetan forces attacked and were beaten, and the saying was that the enemy dare not come close to Geshu Han.

Despite some setbacks, by 753, Geshu Han defeated the Tibetans near Lintao and had driven them from the Jiuqu region, southeast of Qinghai Lake. This is near the source of the Yellow River, symbolically significant because the Yellow River has nurtured the Chinese nation.

Peace would be short lived. In the north An Lushan was ready to launch his rebellion. But we will leave that story for another time.

The Poet

The poet’s actual name is unknown.

西鄙人, Xī Bǐ​rén literally means humble servant (Bǐ​rén) from the west (Xī). Bǐ​rén also has the added meaning of “I, your humble servant” thus referring to not only the poet, but Geshu Han himself.

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.

A hint of what is to come

Years later, Geshu was forced into a ill-advised confrontation with Cui Qianyou and the rebel General An Lushan.

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

moon-crescent