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.
Pinyin and original Chinese
chē lín lín
mǎ xiāo xiāo
xíng rén gōng jiàn gè zài yāo
yè niáng qī zǐ zǒu xiāng song
chén āi bú jiàn xiān yáng qiáo
qiān yī dùn zú lán dào kū
kū shēng zhí shàng gān yún xiāo
dào páng guò zhě wèn xíng rén
xíng rén dàn yún diǎn xíng pín
huò cóng shí wǔ běi fāng hé
biàn zhì sì shí xī yīng tián
qù shí lǐ zhèng yǔ guǒ tóu
guī lái tóu bái hái shù biān
biān tíng liú xuě chéng hǎi shuǐ
wǔ huáng kāi biān yì wèi yǐ
jūn bù wén hàn jiā shān dōng ér bǎi zhōu
qiān cūn wàn luò shēng jīng qǐ
zòng yǒu jiàn fù bǎ chú lí
hé shēng lǒng mǔ wú dōng xī
kuàng fù qín bīng nài kǔ zhàn
bèi qū búyì quǎn yǔ jī
zhǎng zhě suí yǒu wèn
yì fū gǎn shēn hèn
qiě rú jīn nián dōng
wèi xiū guānxī zú
xiàn guān jí suǒ zū
zū shuì cóng hé chū
xìn zhī shēng nán è
shēng nǚ yóu dé jià bǐ lín
shēng nán mái mò suí bǎi cǎo
jūn bú jiàn qīnghǎi tóu
gǔ lái bái gǔ wú rén shōu
xīn guǐ fán yuān jiú guǐ kū tiān yīn yǔ shī shēng jiū
Notes on translating the Title
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.