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
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.
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, 龙, the symbol of the Tang emperor, the fish, 鱼 , 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 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?
Du Fu’s Yuhua Palace is an example ofhuaigu 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.
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.
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, 笙 and 竽, shēng and yú.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 行, 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.
Increasingly remote are the three roads to ancient Ba Dangerous and strange for one who has traveled ten thousand li. At night, in the midst of the jagged snowy mountains, A lonely man is isolated and faraway from kin. (A lonely man so different from the Xiang people) Gradually, grows distant from his blood relations; Time and time again, growing closer to his servants. How, I dread to drift so far when Tomorrow, the new year comes.
Little is known of the Chinese poet Cui Tu other than his date of birth – 854, and the fact that only two of his poems are included in the Anthology of 300 Tang Poems, a book which was first compiled in 1763.
We do know that the Tang dynasty collapsed in 907. We are also aware of a rebellion lasting a decade (874–884) that resulted in the sacking of both capitals at Chang’an and Luoyang.
Needless to say, the times were turbulent. Cui Tu was possibly fleeing for his life to the relative security of mountainous Sichuan. Something, the imperial court did in times of danger. The mention of Ba in the first line, and the prefix of three, (Sanba 三巴 ) is throwback to the ancient State of Ba, which was located in eastern Sichuan. The literal meaning of ba is to cling, which describes the position of the dynasty at that time in history.
I have given an alternate translation to line four since Xiang may also refer to the Xiang people.
Piāobó,漂泊 in line seven is interesting as it suggests that Cui Tu will take on the life of a wanderer, drifting from here to there.
What will the New Year Bring?
Good question. Since the Tang dynasty was on its last legs, the answer is likely, not much.
New Year’s Eve is all about ringing out the old and ringing in the new, or, if you like, bringing in the new, throwing out the old. Old friends die, we make new friends, and Cui Tu must of found himself clinging to his servants not only to survive, but for comfort.
Li Bai has created a series of four love ballads set to the four seasons. The subject is women, the theme is love, devotion, and longing.
The Four Seasons
In Spring, the lovely Lo Fo of the western land of Chin plucks mulberry leaves by the blue waterside, her white arms gleam against the green boughs… In Summer, On Mirror Lake spread out for miles and miles, blossoming lotus lily flowers teem… In Autumn, a crescent moon hangs over Chang’an, and ten thousand wives are pounding clothes…In Winter, she’s told the courier departs next day, so she sews a warrior’s gown all night.
The ballad of Spring is an abbreviated version of an earlier Yuefu poem (樂府, folk song) “Mulberries along the field” (陌上桑). Li Bai pays homage to the chaste and loyal Lo Fo (Lo Fuo) of the Land of Chin (Qin) . “The land of Chin” in mid-western China is the ancient state and short-lived first imperial dynasty (221 to 206 B.C) from which Europeans created the name China.
Summer’s ballad, tells the tale of Xi Shi (西施), literally “(Lady) Shi of the West”, 506 BC – ?).
One of the renowned Four Beauties of ancient China, Xi Shi became a pawn in a plan by King Goujian of Yue to seek revenge over King Fuchai of Wu. Fuchai had previously defeated Goujian and made him a prisoner before releasing him. Now free, King Fuchai offered Xi Shi as a gift to King Goujian. Her beauty bewitched the king and he neglected his duties. Eventually, King Goujian had his revenge and defeated Fuchai. After the fall of Wu, King Goujian’s minister Fan Li retired and, according to legend, lived in the misty waters of Lake Taihu.
This dry and dusty pass at the far western frontier served as a strategic fort along the ancient Silk Road. It derives its name from the jade that passed through its walls. It came under control of the Han Dynasty (China’s second imperial dynasty, 206 BC – 220 AD, following the Qin Dynasty).
Chang’anis lit by a crescent moon and From ten thousand homes comes the sound of cloth-pounding While an autumn wind blows endlessly, For those who guard the Gate at Yumenguan. Who knows when peace will be made with the northern Hu? So good men may return from long marches.
In Spring, the lovely Lo Foh picks mulberry leaves for her silk worms while she disarms the advances of a Prince. In Summer, Xi Shi, China’s Beauty gathers lotus blossoms in May. In Autumn, a sliver of a moon hangs high over Chang’an while soldiers guard Yumenguan Pass. In Winter, a loving wife can hardly hold her needle and thread while she stitches a warm cloak for her warrior husband.
These are the Four Seasons and the Four Ballads of Li Bai.
In this poem, Autumn, Li Bai returns to Chinese history, hearkening back to the reign of Emperor Wu, seventh emperor of the Han dynasty who ruled from 131- 87, a record of 54 years, not surpassed for almost 1,800 years. Emperor Wu led Han China through its greatest expansion. At its height, extending the Empire’s borders north and west to Mongolia and modern Kyrgyzstan, Korea in the east, and Vietnam in the south.
In the North, Emperor Wu faced off against the northern “barbarians”, but this term did not exist in China. Instead, Li Bai refers to he Hu people 胡虜, Hu lu. This ancient people were also known as the Xiongnu. Wu used varying policies of appeasement, marriage, and ultimately war to fight them off.
Li Bai wrote this series of Ballads during the insurrection of General An Lushan, whose rebellion against the Tang dynasty began in 755 with disastrous consequences.
Every Chinese reader of Li Bai’s poetry, then and now, was and is familiar with Yumenguan, 玉門關, the Jade Gate. This remote post marked the western extent of Chinese control. The name derives from the precious jade carried through its gate. 遠征, yuǎnzhēng, I translate as a long march, also an expedition, campaign would also fit.
Li Bai hangs a crescent moon, 一片月, Yīpiàn yuè, over Chang’an, the capital of the Tang dynasty. One could have used the literal translation, a piece, or the poetically assonant “sliver” with shines, but I like the image of a crescent moon over Chang’an. It conveys the dire image that Chang’an and the Tang dynasty were hanging on by a thread during An Lushan’s rebellion.
For three hundred miles along the banks of Mirror Lake Lovely lotus lilies blossoms flower. In fifth moon, a smiling Xi Shi gathers them, As lowly peasants look on from the bank at Yuoye Stream. Her boat turns back without waiting for the moon to rise To the Royal House of Yue to warmhearted sighs.
This is the third of Li Bai’s four seasonal ballads.
Historically, we are at the tail end of the Spring and Autumn Period (771 to 453 B.C.), immediately preceding the Warring States Period. Li Bai sets the poem in the fifth lunar month (which we designate as May) and the start of summer.
The poem picks up with the conclusion of the war between the Houses of Yue and Wu, omitting the fall and rise of King Goujian (勾踐, 496–465 BC). Instead, the poem tells of the aftermath and the fate of the lovely Xi Shi.
The well known story goes like this. The State of Yue, where Xi Shi and her family lived, was defeated in a war with its neighbor State of Wu and Goujian (520-465 BC), the king of the Yue was captured. Made prisoner, Goujian was made a servant of the king of Wu. Three years later, he was set free. Remembering the many humiliations he suffered, Goujian plotted his revenge. All the meanwhile, living simply as a peasant, eating their foods, and tasting the bile of an animal each day as memory of his suffering at the hands of the king of Wu.
The fair Xi Shi was one of the renowned Four Beauties of ancient China. She was recruited by Goujian and his minister Fan Li to go to King Fuchai of Wu and distract him from his duties of state. Bewitched by her beauty, King Fuchai killed his best advisor and then began a series of disastrous political moves that eventually resulted in the killing of the king’s son and the destruction of the kingdom. King Fuchai himself, committed suicide when King Goujian surrounded his capital and demanded his surrender.
Li Bai’s ballad picks up after the defeat of Wu.
The victorious King Goujian kills all the scholars of Wu. King Goujian’s advisor Fan Li, seeing Goujian’s paranoia and taste for revenge, retires. In the legend recounted by Li Bai, Fan Li and Xi Shi live on a fishing boat, roaming like phantoms on the misty mirror-like waters of Lake Taihu, rarely seen.
Li Bai’s choice of the lotus blossom for Xi Shi is intentional. Because the flower rises from the mud and blooms in exquisite beauty, it symbolizes perfection and purity of heart and mind. It also represents long life and honor.
Mother’s Day is one day away, so I reprise Meng Jiao’s Song of the Wandering Son. The poem is like a multi-faceted gem, viewed differently from different angles.
The thread in the hands of a loving mother Making clothes for her wandering son; Carefully she stitches and sews, Fearing delays that will keep him from home. But how does inch-long grass Repay the sun for three months of sunlight in spring?
The wandering son
Our wandering son is most likely a soldier called up by the emperor to campaign in the spring and the summer against the Tibetans in the far west or the Mongols to the north. The weather is bleak, the spring and summer short, winter is long and cold. The soldiers travel to a faraway land of high, grass plateaus, steep ravines, and snow-capped mountains. The sparse rains fall, gathering and forming the three of the great rivers of Asia – the Yellow, the Yangtze, and the Mekong.
The Tang soldiers confront tribesmen who are fierce warriors and splendid horsemen born to the saddle. They live upon herds of yaks, cliff-dwelling sheep, horses and the plunder they take from the caravans bound to and from China.
A loving mother
Our mother silently goes about her work closely stitching the warm coat he will need, knowing and fearing the long delay before he returns.
Notes on translation
How does the high plateau grass repay the sun for its sunlight, how does a son repay a mother for her nurturing love?
The last two lines of Meng’s poem which begins with 谁 言 Shéi yán, who said, has become a metaphor for a mother’s love.
“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.
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 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.
Where the Yellow River in the far white clouds is arising, A walled fortress stands alone amidst the vast peaks abiding, Under a willow tree, the Qiang flute is sighing, That Spring never blows through the Yumen (Jade) Pass.
Understanding Wang Zhihuan’s poem
In 710, the young Princess Jinching, adopted daughter to the Emperor Zhongzong, passed through Yumen Gate on her way to marry the Tibetan emperor. She would never return to her home in China. With this poem, Wang Zhihuan answers the emperor’s request for poems in her honor.
The princess is not named specifically in the poem, but her name appears phonetically in the last characters on the first two lines (Huánghé yuǎn shàng báiyún jiān, yīpiàn gūchéng wàn rèn shān). We can speculate further that these two characters 间 (jiān) and 山 (shān), represent the ideas of separation and mountains.
More about Princess Jinching…
The setting for the poem is Yumenguan (玉门关, English, Jade Gate Pass), so named because of the jade caravans that passed through the opening in the wall. The pass was located on the ancient Silk Road.
It represented the border between China and Tibet.
At home in China, Wang Zhihuan could see the distant clouds in west. He understood that the Yellow River (黄河) was formed by the rain that fell on the high Tibetan Plateau, in the midst of ten-thousand foot mountains, before it coursed through China to the Yellow Sea and the currents of the Pacific Ocean.
The wall’s opening surely reminded Wang of the hole on a flute. The Qiang people who live in the area have a unique two-reeded flute that plays a sound that recalls the emotion of missing someone.
The Qiang People
During Tang dynasty (618–907), Chinese and Tibetan forces battled often. Between the two super-powers lay the ethnic Qiang people. During the border struggles, the Qiang went one way and then the other, subjects of Chinese or Tibetan control.
Like Wang Zhihuan, one can imagine a lonely flutist lamenting his misfortunes underneath a willow tree wondering why the winds of spring never reach his home.
The Qiang people make a unique flute made up of two bamboo pipes with two sets of holes. It is said that the sound of the flute is special, reminding one of the emotion of missing home. Popular Qiang songs include “Breaking off a Willow Branch” and “Missing You”. The third line of the poem begins with the characters 羌笛 – Qiāngdí, which clearly to me is Qiang flute. Nevertheless, some modern translations do not identify the Qiang flute, but generally of a flute played by a Tartar or Tibetan soldier. The verb in this line is 怨, literally, blame or complain, but lament or sigh sounds better to me. The willow tree – 杨柳 literally, willow tree / poplar and willow / or, a reference to the name of traditional tune that I cannot identify.
For a song that uses the willow tree as a metaphor see The Song of Everlasting (Unending) Sorrow, a long narrative poem by Bai Juyi (772 – 846). In the fifth scene, the imperial concubine is a little drunk. Her swaying figure resembles that of a willow branch dancing in the spring breeze.
The Title – 凉州词
The title also presents somewhat of a challenge. The original Chinese characters are 凉州词, literally Discouraging, Provincial, Word, or word from a cold province. Generally, modern translators use Beyond the Border, and so will I, but it would be more accurate to say, “At the Border” or “A Word from the Border,” or “word from a cold province”.
These alternate titles, however, lack the alliteration of “Beyond the Border”.
This is the second of two of Wang’s six existing poems published in the anthology of 300 Tang Poems. The other published poem is Ascending Stork Tower.