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
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’s actual name is unknown.
西鄙人, Xī Bǐrén literally means humble servant (Bǐrén) from the west (Xī). Bǐrén also has the added meaning of “I, your humble servant” thus referring to not only the poet, but Geshu Han himself.
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