Border Songs, 1 of 4, revisited

A poet plays over in his mind the words and images of his poem. So too, does the translator. Let us then revisit Lu Lun’s Border Songs beginning with number one of four.

Hawk feathers flutter from his golden arrow
His woven silk flag waves like the tail like a swallow
One man rises to gives the order
Thousands follow as one, shouting, HU!

Lu Lun’s Border songs recount the exploits of General Li Guang (died 119 BC) .

From Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (Shǐjì 94 BC), General Li Guang was a man of great build, with long arms and good archery skills, who on one occasion, legend says, was able to shoot an arrow deeply into a stone which resembled the shape of a crouching tiger. To China’s northern enemy, a tribe called the Xiongnu (generally associated with the Mongols),  he was known as a determined opponent who would willingly face armies of superior numbers. He was haunted by bad luck in battle and committed suicide after a loss at the Battle of Mobei (Gobi Desert).

 

The English Translation

In writing this series of poems, Lu Lun was no doubt mindful of the Tang dynasty’s troubles during the An Lushan Rebellion. General An Lushan was from the northern tribes and fought for the Chinese emperor before rebelling. For an extended period of time, he and his armies wrecked havoc on the Tang dynasty. These troubles were the subject of many Tang poets. Lu Lun’s ancestral home was Fanyang, modern day Beijing, on the northern extreme of the Chinese Empire, where An Lushan began his rebellion.

First line, the characters for golden arrow are 金 僕 姑, literally golden servant girl. The pinyin translation of last two characters (servant girl) rhyme (pú and gū). In Chinese military history, armies relied heavily on archery and the general in command would carry a golden arrow with feathers to signify his authority.

Second line, the war flag of embroidered silk is woven, a metaphor for the army itself which is woven to together with individual soldiers. Like the swallows of the air they will then move to and fro in unison.

Third line, even in the flight of the swallow, one bird makes a movement and others follow. The general raises his arrow and gives the order to advance.

Fourth line, thousands raise their voice and shout. The Chinese character for shout is 呼 and also the sound of the wind. If you have ever stood in a field and heard the sound of a flock of swallow changing direction, you will have the sense of the imagery.

The rhyme scheme is aaba, gū, hú, lìng hū.

Dunhuang_Zhang_Yichao_army

Original Chinese Characters

鷲翎金僕姑
燕尾繡蝥弧
獨立揚新令
千營共一呼

The Title

The title is almost always translated as Border Songs. For border, Lu Lun chooses the Chinese characters  塞 and 下, sāi and xià, literally beneath the pass. He picked these characters, no doubt, because they work together poetically.

French Translation

Des plumes faucon palpitent de sa flèche en d’or
Son drapeau soie ondule comme la queue hirondelle
Un homme se lève pour donner l’ordre
Des milliers suivent comme un, en criant, HU!

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Border Songs, 4 of 4, Lu Lun

Let our victorious feast in camp begin
Let the Quiang, our friends, proclaim, the war is won
Let us drink to harmony, and in golden armor dance until the night is done
Let us thunder on the mountains and rivers with our drums

Literally, the the poem’s 20 characters go something like this: In our camp we feast, the Qiang Rong (a friendly tribe on China’s western border) praise the toil of our triumphant soldiers. Full of wine, we dance in golden armor, while drums thunder over the rivers (valleys) and mountains.

The rhyme scheme is aaba. There is also internal rhyme that is missing in this translation. For example, the poem ends with the characters 山 川 (Shān chuān), mountains and rivers. Sichuan (四川) Province in China’s southwest province includes the eastern plateau of Tibet.

野 幕 蔽 瓊 筵

羌 戎 賀 勞 旋

醉 和 金 甲 舞

雷 鼓 動 山 川

Pinyin (phonetic)

Yě mù bì qióng yán

Qiāng róng hè láo xuán

Zuì hé jīn jiǎ wǔ

Léi gǔ dòng shān chuān

Notes.

Shuo Wen Jie zi (Shuowen Jiezi), the 2nd century Chinese dictionary says: “Qiang are shepherds of the western tribes, hence, the character 羌 is developed from 羊 (sheep) and 人 (human) meaning they are shepherds.” The Rong were a branch of the Quiang. Early in the Tang dynasty, the Tubo, a poweful Tibetan tribe, made war against the Tang. The “enlightened” Tang Emperor Taizong defeated the Tibetans in 638. The Qiang had to handle pressure from both sides. Historical texts referred to the Qiang then as “two-faced Qiang”. Other texts suggest the Quiang merged with the Chinese people. Today, they are a minority people, recognized as such by Mao Zedong.

The title. The first three characters of the title, 塞 下 曲, literally translate as “at the strategic pass, song” from which comes the more popular rendition “border song.” Then, the character for the number four. This is followed by the remaining three characters, 首 之 四, thus we have “four of four.” Phonetically, the last four characters are full of sibilance, like a snake hissing – sì shǒu zhī sì.

Border Songs, 3 of 4, Lu Lun

Lu Lun Border Songs

Lu Lun Border Songs, 3 of 4

Three of four, border songs of the leader, by Lu Lun.

The title – 塞 下 曲 四 首 之 三

The first two Chinese characters, 塞 下, rhyme, sài and xià, denoting the critical juncture where civilization ends and one passes into foreign lands.

The poem falls in the genre of border songs or frontier songs. These poems take place at strategic passes, on the western border with Tibet or on the northern borders with Turkic tribes. The scene might be a mountain pass or underneath the wall built to keep out the invaders.

The third character is the Chinese equivalent of song, qū.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth characters are beautifully fricative assonants, sì, shǒu, zhī.

The poem –
月 黑 雁 飛 高
單 于 夜 遁 逃
欲 將 輕 騎 逐
大 雪 滿 弓 刀

Rhyme: Gāo, táo, zhú, dāo (aaba)

A dark moon, the wild geese fly high (gāo)
At night, the Mongol chieftain escapes and flees (dùn táo)
Wishing, willing, lightly clad, we hunt the enemy
In snow piled high to our bows and swords (dāo)

The battle is with the nomadic Xiongnu tribes to the north of China. Generally, they are identified as Mongols, sometimes Huns, sometimes Tukic tribes. The chieftain has fled and while the wild geese scatter underneath a dark moon, the enemy flees, hunted down by lightly clad Chinese cavalry. They carry bow and arrow and the dāo, a single-edged Chinese sword, convenient for slashing and chopping at close range.

French translation

La lune, c’est noire, les oies sauvages volent haut et loin
La nuit, les Turcs s’échappent et fuient
Souhaitant, désireux, légèrement vêtus, nous les chassons
Avec la neige jusqu’à nos arcs et couteaux

Lu Lun

Lu Lun, was a poet of the Middle Tang Dynasty, who was born circa 737 in Fanyang, and died circa 788. The An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) affected his career path as it did many of the poets. Though the Tang Dynasty withdrew from Central Asia after the rebellion was put down, the interest in earlier military success on the frontier remained strong.  The frontier landscape was harsh, the mountains tall and desolate, the rivers cold, the desert dry and unforgiving, the garrison troops were, in the main, lonely and suffering, but by will and successful generalship, they overcame the Tibetans at the western frontiers and the Turkic nomads on the north.

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Border Songs, 1 of 4, Lu Lun

Within the benefit of time, further research, and thought, I will rewrite this poem.

It appears now that the poem is about the exploits of General Li Guang (Western Han dynasty) who fought against the northern Xiongnu tribe and died 119 BC.

 

Dunhuang_Zhang_Yichao_army

General Zhang Yichao’s victory over the Tibetan Empire, 848. Wikipedia image

Border Songs, One of four

Eagle feathers hang from his golden arrow
His silk flag flutters like the tail of a swallow.
One man, arising, gives a new order and
A thousand battalions, with one shout, Hi-yo!

塞 下 曲 四 首 之 一

鷲 翎 金 僕
燕 尾 繡 蝥 弧
獨 立 揚 新 令
千 營 共 一 呼

Lu Lun was born around 748 in Shangxi Province. The one-character abbreviation for the province is 晋, Jin. This is also the fifth character in the title that precedes the poem. Thus, this may be a subtle reference to Lu’s home or to Lu Lun receiving his Jinshi degree.

The genre is called Frontier Poetry or Border Songs, which hearken back to happier times, when the Tang dynasty subjugated the Göktürks in the north or defeated the Tibetan armies in the west. China was at the height of its glory. The inclusion of the character 晋 (Jin) suggests that this is about a life or death struggle with the Göktürks.

This is the first in a series of four border songs by Lu Lun.

The Title

塞 下 曲 四 首 之 一

I confess to being stymied by the title. It seems to begin with the two characters, 塞 下, meaning at the border, or underneath the border wall. Then, the next two characters, 曲 四, suggest the characters for song of four, which may be an allusion to an ancient Chinese board game and a life or death struggle. A simpler explanation is that there are four Beyond the Border Songs included in the Tang 300.

I do know that it ends with the two characters:

之 一, zhī yī, One out of a multitude.

Most anthologies of the Tang 300 poems give the title as “Border Songs” with the appellation of its number in the series. That seems unfair.

Lu Lun stresses the importance of one man out of a multitude.

An unnamed army general is mounted on his horse, and holds in his hand the golden arrow, the emblem of his authority from the emperor. Nearby, a servant holds the campaign flag. It flutters in the wind like the swallow tail. The two images – eagle and swallow – represent the general and his army.

The warriors wait expectantly. The general, gazing upon the enemy and then back at his warriors, gives his battle command, and thousands of warriors respond as one.

“Hi-yo. Go all out!”

The rhyming pattern of the poem is aaba (Gū hú lìng hū), but there is also a significant amount of internal rhyme. This is important to convey the poets meaning that an army must fight in unison.

Little is known of his career.

Lu Lu’s death is variously reported as circa 788 to 800.
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