Song of the Wagons – Du Fu

The wagons rumble and roll,
The horses whinny and neigh,
The conscripts each have bows and arrows at their waists.
Their parents, wives and children run to see them off,
So much dust’s stirred up, it hides the Xianyang bridge.
They pull clothes, stamp their feet and, weeping, bar the way,
The weeping voices rise straight up and strike the clouds.
A passer-by at the roadside asks a conscript why,
The conscript answers only that drafting happens often.
“At fifteen, many were sent north to guard the river,
Even at forty, they had to till fields in the west.
When we went away, the elders bound our heads,
Returning with heads white, we’re sent back off to the frontier.
At the border posts, shed blood becomes a sea,
The martial emperor’s dream of expansion has no end.
Have you not seen the two hundred districts east of the mountains,
Where thorns and brambles grow in countless villages and hamlets?
Although there are strong women to grasp the hoe and the plough,
They grow some crops, but there’s no order in the fields.
What’s more, we soldiers of Qin withstand the bitterest fighting,
We’re always driven onwards just like dogs and chickens.
Although an elder can ask me this,
How can a soldier dare to complain?
Even in this winter time,
Soldiers from west of the pass keep moving.
The magistrate is eager for taxes,
But how can we afford to pay?
We know now having boys is bad,
While having girls is for the best;
Our girls can still be married to the neighbours,
Our sons are merely buried amid the grass.
Have you not seen on the border of Qinghai,
The ancient bleached bones no man’s gathered in?
The new ghosts are angered by injustice, the old ghosts weep,
Moistening rain falls from dark heaven on the voices’ screeching.”

Notes: This poem dates from around 750 (Watson p. 8) or 751 (Hawkes p. 10). The Xianyang bridge was southwest (Hawkes p. 12) or north (Watson p. 9) of Chang’an; in either case, the conscripts are being sent to fight on the western border. The soldiers guarding the river were guarding the Yellow River; those tilling fields in the west worked at garrisons with their own farms, to make them self-sufficient (Hawkes p. 13). The martial emperor was emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, here standing in for the current emperor, Xuanzong (Hawkes p. 14). Qin and west of the pass both refer to the Chang’an area (Watson p. 9); Qinghai is on the border with Tibet (Watson p. 9).

This poem is volume (juàn) 216, no. 11 in the Complete Tang Poems (quán táng shī). It is translated as poem 2 in Hawkes, pp. 5-17, poem 6 in Watson, pp. 8-9, poem XXIX in Hung, pp. 64-5, and on pp. 468-9 of Owen and pp. 10-11 of Hinton.

Hawkes, D. (1967) A Little Primer of Tu Fu. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Hinton, D. (1990) The Selected Poems of Tu Fu. London, Anvil Press Poetry.
Hung, W. (1952) Tu Fu: China’s Greatest Poet. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
Owen, S. (1996) An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911. New York/London, W. W. Norton.
Watson, B. (2002) The Selected Poems of Du Fu. New York, Columbia University Press.

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