Chinese literary critics have honored Du Fu (712~770) as the “Poet Historian” since Northern Song Dynasty (960~1127). The most directly historical of Du Fu’s poems are those commenting on military tactics or the successes and failures of the government, or the poems of advice which he wrote to the authorities. Indirectly, he wrote about the effect of the times in which he lived on himself, and on the ordinary Chinese people. “Song of the Conscripts” (兵车行 Bingche Xing, literally “Ballad of the Army Wagons”) was written in around 750, when China under Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Dynasty (685~762) frequently engaged in wars with neighboring countries on its western border. It gives voice to the sufferings of conscript soldiers in the imperial army and criticizes China’s military expansionism.
“Song of the Conscripts” sets the scene around Chinese capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) with a long column of conscripts heading north to the Wei River Bridge and off to the frontier. A bystander elicits a monologue from one of the conscripts, who complains of the length of service, deserted farmland, and the anticipation of a futile death on the battlefield. A Tang paper fragment with a few lines of this poem has been found in the sands of Central Asia, testifying that the poem actually traveled with where the troops did.
English translation by Xu Yuanchong
Song of the Conscripts
and horses grumble.
The conscripts march with bow and arrows at the waist.
Their fathers, mothers, wives and children come in haste
To see them off; the bridge is shrouded in dust they’ve raised.
They clutch at their coats, stamp the feet and bar the way;
Their grief cries loud and strikes the cloud straight, straightaway.
An onlooker by roadside asks an enrollee.
“The conscription is frequent,” only answers he.
Some went north at fifteen to guard the rivershore,
And were sent west to till the land at forty.
The elder bound their young heads when they went away;
Just home, they’re sent to the frontier though their hair’s gray.
The field on borderland becomes a sea of blood;
The emperor’s greed for land is still at high flood.
Have you not heard
Two hundred districts east of the Hua Mountains lie,
Where briers and brambles grow in villages far and nigh?
Although stout women can wield the plough and the hoe,
Thorns and weeds in the east as in the west o’ergrow.
The enemy are used to hard and stubborn fight;
Our men are driven just like dogs or fowls in flight.
“You are kind to ask me.
To complain I’m not free.
In winter of this year
Conscription goes on here.
The magistrates for taxes press.
How can we pay them in distress?
If we had know sons bring no joy,
We would have preferred girl to boy.
A daughter can be wed to a neighbor, alas!
A son can only be buried under the grass!”
Have you not seen On borders green
Bleached bones since olden days unburied on the plain?
The old ghosts weep and cry, while the new ghosts complain;
The air is loud with screech and scream in gloomy rain.
Original text in Simplified Chinese
Kang-i Sun Chang, Stephen Owen, The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, 2010, Cambridge University Press.
Xu Yuanchong, 300 Tang poems : a new translation, 1987, Commercial Press