Song of Geshu Han

big dipper constellation in the northern skies

The Seven Stars of the Northern Dipper hang high in the sky
While Geshu stands ready with sword and knife
To date, the Tibetan cavalry watches and waits
Not daring to pass Lintao gate

Original Chinese and Pinyin


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

Mounted Chinese horseman, cavalry

Notes on the Song of Geshu Han

This anonymous poem is attributed to 西鄙人 Xī Bǐ​rén, meaning “a humble servant
from the west.” Geshu is the surname, Han the first name, signifying that Geshu generally belongs to the Han ethnicity or Chinese people.

Geshu Han was a Tang General of Turkic origins who distinguished himself by defeating Tibetan armies and restoring order to the northwestern frontier. Later, during the disastrous Rebellion of General An Lushan, he was captured and executed in 757.

The Title, 哥 舒 歌, Gēshū gē, Song of Geshu.

Line one. 北斗, Běidǒu, Northern Dipper. The line is literally translated, but, as I am not familiar with Chinese astronomy, I wonder about the translation. In Traditional Chinese astronomy these seven stars compose the Right Wall of the Purple Forbidden Enclosure, which suggests to me a celestial metaphor.

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. Moreover, the correct imagery is a hidden foe peeping at and watching Geshu’s horses who have been tethered for the night. Alternatively, “To date, they wait and watch our herd of 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 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