Song of Yan (1) with a Preface
The poet’s preface:
In the twenty-six year of the Kaiyuan Reign (A.D. 738), a man who had accompanied Censor Zhang Shougui to the frontier returned and showed me his Song of Yan. His depiction of the life of war and garrison duty inspired me to the following reply:
Border clashes to the northeast,
Our general leaves home, goes to fight
A general who is proud of bravery,
Wins, and wins again;
He pleases the Emperor,
And wins rewards.
Drums boom, gongs sound:
The army marches to Yuguan Pass (2).
They snake their way on Jieshi Mountain (3),
Their banners flying.
Crossing the desert
The general’s couriers rush an urgent army report:
On Langshan Mountain (4) the Hun chief
Starts a new war.
How lonely, how bleak, there at the border!
Then Hun’s horsemen whirl on like a storm.
In battle half our army falls.
But in our camps, beautiful girls still dance.
Grass withers in the vast desert
As autumn passes.
Battle after battle: not many left to fight them.
At sunset the solitary town seems empty.
The general often takes the enemy lightly
Proud of the emperor’s favor.
But the siege goes on and on
In spite of all his strength and his valor.
We hold the frontier, far from our homes,
Kept in strange lands, year after year.
Our wives mourn for us, there in our houses,
Shed their secret tears, day after day.
South of town young women are torn
North of Ji (4) soldiers helplessly long
In windy border lands days are lonely,
Days are long; far-off places
Have nothing but bleak, blank, endless sands,
Death hangs waiting, all day, all time,
Diaodou (5) sounds all through the cold night.
Who cares for handsome reward
When bloody battles are fought hand to hand?
Whenever you see suffering on our frontiers
Think of General Li (7),
Think of General Li.
(1) Yan, ancient Liaoning and North Hebei.
(2) Yuguan Pass, present-day Shanhaiguan Pass, in Hebei Province.
(3) Jieshi Mountains, in Hebei Province.
(4) Langshan Mountains, in Inner Mongolia.
(5) Ji, a district in Hebei Province.
(6) Diaodou, an ancient army iron utensil used as a cooking utensil in the day and a watch gong in the night to report time.
(7) General Li (?-119 B.C.) a famous Han Dynasty general, who utterly defeated the Huns and kept the border at peace for years.
Along the North-east border,
War alarms smoulder and glow.
Our generals have left home
To crush the ferocious foe.
It is but manly to be –
In the thickest of the fray.
His Royal Visage brightens –
Of valor, at each display.
War drums beating; gong striking
The army reach Shanhaiguan.
War banners form a long queue.
Trailing along Jieshishan.
Urgent orders cross desert,
As rapidly as they can,
The chief of the Huns has set –
War flames aglow in Langshan.
As far as the border goes,
Is an immense, dreary waste.
The cavalry of the tribesmen –
More like sheeted rain, in haste.
Before battle, die or live,
Our men have an even chance.
Within the vast encampment,
Pretty girls still sing and dance.
It is autumn at its height.
Desert grass withers away.
Against the declining sun –
The city is held at bay.
Those who are royally favored –
Of the enemy, make light.
But they cannot raise the siege.
Though they’re courageous in fight.
Men, in armor, far from home.
Have been most sorely tried.
Their wives long separated,
Must have very often cried.
Young women, far in the south,
Languish for their baaux in pain.
In the front, with longing eyes,
They look back only in vain.
How can one cross the border –
O’er such different terrain?
Where else has one encountered –
Such a vast, uncharted plain?
The place smells of a shambles,
Three quarters of a year long,
Cold winds, the night through, carries –
Mournful notes of the camp’s gong.
In the midst of whirling snow,
When clashing scimitars gleam,
Is it for winning merits?
Such, none of us ever deem.
Hardships in the battlefield,
One has yet to learn and see,
Many people even now –
Cherish thoughts of marshal Li.
Song of the Northern Frontier
A cloud of smoke and dust spreads over northeast frontier;
To fight the remnant foe our generals leave the rear.
Brave men should go no manes where beneath the sky;
The emperor bestows on them his favor high.
To the beat of drums and gongs through Elm Pass they go;
Round Mount Stone Tablet flags serpentine row on row,
But urgent orders speed over the Sea of Sand:
Mount Wolf aflame with fires set by the Tartar band.
Both hills and streams are desolate on border plain;
The Tartar horsemen flurry like the wind and rain.
Half of our warriors lie killed on the battleground;
While pretty girls in camp still sing and dance their round.
Grass withers in the desert as autumn is late;
At sunset few men guard the lonely city gate.
Imperial favor makes them hold the foemen light;
Their town is under siege, though they’ve fought with their might.
In coats of mail they’ve serve so long on the frontiers;
Since they let home their wives have shed streams of impearled tears.
In southern towns the women weep with broken heart;
In vain their men look southward, still they’re far apart.
The northern front at stake, how can they go away?
On border vast and desolate, how can they stay?
All day a cloud of slaughter mounts now and again;
All night the boom of gongs is heard to chill the plain.
Each sees the other’s sword bloodstained in the hard strife.
Will they care for reward when they give up their life?
Do you not know the bitterness of fighting with the foe?
Can they forget General Li sharing their weal and woe?
Song of the Northern Frontiers
In 738 AD, an aide followed General Zhang Shougui on the expedition to the northern frontiers. After he returned, he wrote and showed me a poem entitled Song of the Northern Frontiers. Deeply moved by it, I write this poem in reply.
The smoke and dust of the Tang Dynasty are raised on the northeast frontiers,
So the generals of the Tang Dynasty leave home to fight the remnant invaders.
Men by nature like to run amok on horses,
Moreover the emperor bestows on them special glories.
Beating gongs and drums, out of the Elm Pass the troops go,
Through Mount Stone Tablet the banners meander high and low.
Over the sea of sands the military dispatches wing their flight,
The hunting fires set by the Huns’ chief make Mount Wolf bright.
The desolate hills and rivers spread all over the border land,
Like a violent storm the Hunnish horsemen invade our land.
Half of the warriors are killed on the battleground,
But pretty maids in the tents still sing and dance round and round.
In late autumn the border grasses on the desert wither,
At sunset the warriors in the solitary town are fewer and fewer,
The emperor’s favor made the generals take the enemy light,
As a result they’re still besieged when the warriors on the battlefields have no strength to fight.
The warriors in armour long garrison the frontiers,
After they leave home, their wives shed streams of tears.
In the south part of Chang’an the young women’s hearts are broken,
Their husbands on Northern Ji look back at hometown in vain.
The frontier district is in turmoil, how could the warriors stay in it?
In this remotest area what else can they see except the vast wilderness desolate?
The death-threatening air turns into the war clouds all day long,
The cold sound of the copper rice pot is heard all night long.
The warriors see each other’s swords all covered with bloodstain,
Only thinking of dying for the loyalty to the emperor, how would they care for personal gain?
Don’t you see the hardships the warriors on the battle-fields suffer in fight,
So up to now people still think of General Li of the Han Dynasty day and night.
A Song of the Northeastern Frontier
Flames of war were burning on the Han’s northeast border.
The Han’s generals left home to fight remnant invaders.
It was men’s character to gallop on the battlefield.
Just for this, they were with the Emperor’s special grace filled.
Beating the gong and drum, through the Elm Pass they marched away,
Round Mount Stone Tablet with martial banners winding their way.
The field officer’s plumed message sped round the Sea of Sand:
Fires were set on Mount Wolf by the chief of the Tartar band.
To the verge of borderland, hills and streams turned desolate,
With their horsemen trampling like violent storm that came down straight.
Half of our warriors gave up their lives on the field bravely;
Still in the camp were singing and dancing maidens pretty.
Border grass in the desert withered as late autumn came;
At sunset our warriors in the lonely fort fewer became.
They held the enemy light, though favored with Royal grace;
With all their effort they failed to raise the siege of the place.
The men in iron mails had long been far in the army;
For their mournful parting, their wives had many times a cry.
The young women broke their hearts at south gate of the city;
Their men on Northern Ji front turned their eyes homeward vainly.
How could they stay in the borderland amidst turbulence?
What could they get in the vast place at remotest distance?
All day long, circumstance threatening death o’erhung like cloud;
All night long, rang the copper vessel with trembling sound loud.
Each saw the other’s white sword profusely stained with red blood.
When they were ready to die, o’er what rewards would they brood?
See you not on the battlefield one leads what a life bitter?
That’s why our memory of General Li will last e’er!
Ballad of Yen
The northeast border regions were ever
dark with smoke and dust; generals
gloriously left their homes and rode
to defend the frontier; lads were pressed
to enlist with the promise
of seeing distant places, and the Emperor
looked down with gracious approval;
to the crash of martial music, the army
marched out through the Yu Gate and with banners
streaming, passed Chieh Shih; commanders busily
sent express dispatches to one another
across the desert; on the mountains of Langshan
could be seen the fires lit by the hunters
of the enemy chief, Shang-yu; here
all is desolate – monotonous, stark hills, wild streams.
Then the tribesmen attack like
a desert storm; our comrades dead
or half-dead lie along the frontier line
while in the rear, in the tents of headquarters,
lovely ladies comfort the generals with dance and song.
And at sunset at the frontline post
our decimated troops stand among their dead comrades
proud of the Emperor’s favour;
our generals took no account of the enemy
so that all their efforts were exhausted
unable to break the enemy encirclement;
our armour has become thin and battered;
when we think of those from whom
we have been separated, we weep;
while back in our far homes grief rends
the hearts of our families, tears fall; but for us
even to think of that other life is useless.
It is impossible to cross the great desert
let alone try to conquer it all; yet the lust
for killing, like a cloud recurring,
rolls over us; and in the long cold nights we listen
to the thud of drums telling us so clearly
that soon again sword edges will be red with blood
and death the common portion; once dead
who will ever care about military glory;
gentlemen, you have not seen the bitterness
of war in the desert. You may go on sitting
and discussing the military prowess of Li Kuang
in the time of Han.
（Rewi Alley 译）
Song of Yan
Preface: In the twenty-sixth year of the Kaiyuan Reign (738), there was a man who went with the Grand Censor Zhang Shougui out into the frontier region; when he returned, he wrote a “Song of Yan” and showed it to me. Stirred by campaign experiences and military life, I wrote an accompanying piece.
For the House of Han, war’s dust and smoke
lie in the Northeast,
And the Han general leaves his home
to crush the last of the raiders.
True men by their very nature
love the long campaign,
And the Son of Heaven has granted them
his special countenance.
Strike the kettledrums, beat the tambours
down through Elm Pass,
Banners and pennons in far-winding lines
move over Jie Rock.
Dispatches from the colonels
fly across the Sea of Sand.
The hunting fires of the Great Khan
are shining upon Wolf Mountain.
Now gloom settles on mountains and rivers
all through this borderland,
Nomad horsemen press out ranks hard,
blending with wind and rain;
Our troops fighting in the vanguard,
half living and half now dead,
While the loveliest maiden dance and sing
in the tents of the commander.
On the great desert, autumn’s end,
border plants sicken and die,
A lone fortress in setting sunlight
where troops doing battle grow fewer –
They have tased His Majesty’s favor
and think nothing of the foe,
But their strength is worn down at forts in the mountains,
the encirclement not yet broken.
Men clad in armor in far garrisons,
their sufferings long endured;
Surely many a lady wept silver tears
after many a parting.
As south of the city a young wife’s heart
is on the point of breaking,
North of Ji a man marching
turns to look back in vain.
Whirled back and forth on the borderlands,
how can they ever cross over?
In this farthest realm’s vast reaches
nothing there is at all.
For three seasons long, winds of destruction
form into phalanx of cloud;
Sound in the cold: the whole night through,
the ringing of watch kettles.
They look on each other: bare blades of silver
where snow comes drifting down,
Steadfast to death, and never a thought
of glory or reward.
Haven’t you seen on those tracts of sand
The pain of marching and battle?
But even today there is memory of
our general, Li Guang.
（Stephen Owen 译）