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Anti-war Ballads and Songs

Popular songs and ballads of the Han do not glorify war, nor do they celebrate national victories. It is ironic that they sprang from the great age of Chinese imperialism, when Han armies pushed the frontiers eastwards far into Korea, north into the steppes, west to Central Asia, and south into Vietnam. The songs of the people do not commemorate this conquest and expansion. The anonymous singers seem not to belong to the great enterprise of the state. They even sound unpatriotic. There is no concept of military honour, nor of the immortality to be gained through acts of bravery on the battlefield. The dramatic evocation of exciting battles and the glorification of the heroic are absent from the songs of war. It is as if the people contributed their labour and their life to imperial foreign policy, but expected no reward. Their contribution was not voluntary. Most armies were mustered by conscription. Often men were taken from their fields at harvest time to fight far from home. To them—the ordinary folk of the land—wars of conquest were an abstraction, not a living reality like the spasmodic raids of tribesmen into their northern homesteads. The idea of loyal service owed by a vassal to his lord was no longer dominant in the Han as it had been in the Chou. Rather, the Han dynasts continued the policy of the dissolution of the old Chou aristocratic orders which had been introduced by the Ch’in rulers. The private armies of Chou feudal states were disbanded and the old bond of loyalty between lord and people disappeared.1 Under the Han, the fighting man was an anonymous soldier who often did not comprehend the impersonal cause for which the ultimate sacrifice was demanded of him. In general, Han war songs and ballads reflect this anonymity and incomprehension. They are songs of protest, not hymns of praise and thanksgiving.

The tradition of protest did not originate in the Han. The Chou Book of Poetry contains numerous anti-war pieces, in which the anonymous poets often voice the same complaints as the Han song-makers.2 Yet the classic also features marching songs and victory songs expressing the soldiers’ pride in their lord’s achievements and joy in their own acts of valour. The 117two types of song, praise and plaint, coexisted. In the later anthology of the Chou, Songs of Ch’u, the only war poem is a battle hymn glorifying war and commemorating the dead as heroes whose names will live for ever.3

Han war songs and ballads continue the plaintive strain of similar poems in the Book of Poetry, but reflect the changes in the social and political life of the Han. The resemblances between the two periods can sometimes be very close. The expedition described in the Han song, ‘Light in the East’, echoes these Chou lines:

We were led by Sun Tzu-chung

To subdue Ch’en and Sung.

He does not bring us home;

My heart is sad within.4

Both pieces end with a plaint, both express nostalgia. But the Chou passage reveals an important cultural difference: the soldiers’ leader is personalized, he is a lord whom they know by name and to whom they are attached by a bond of service. Also, they know where they are fighting The Han soldier did not know his leader, and is vague about the place and object of war. The army of the Han song consists of rabble rounded up because war was unpopular at harvest time. Both traditions, however, share a pervading sense of war-weariness and a mood of nostalgia. Again and again the soldier’s thoughts turn homewards to his farm and family. He feels powerless to avert his own fate and his family’s, and he rails against the injustice of it all. Though he voices his plaint, he does not take action.

Apart from the cultural differences between the Chou and Han war plaint, a new element of realism colours the Han songs and ballads. Bodies lying dead on the battlefield were not a fit subject for the poems of the Chou classic. In Songs of Ch’u they are hymned as immortal heroes in a idealizing manner: ‘Their bodies may have died, but their souls are living:/ Heroes among the shades their valiant souls will be.’5 The Han singer does not treat death as a taboo topic, nor is he interested in idealizing death in hymns. He cynically refers to the dead on the battle­field as ‘fodder for crows’. A soldier returning home after a lifetime in the army finds his home has become a wasteland: ‘Pheasants flying through rafter tops;/ The inner garden grown wild with corn.’

The anonymity of Han war songs and ballads accentuates their time­less quality and their universal appeal. It is interesting that despite their insistence on the futility of war and their non-militaristic spirit, two of the titles translated here were included traditionally in categories of military music. It is probable that officials responsible for arranging military music sensed that these songs struck a chord deep in the hearts of fighting men.118

Light in the East

Is there light in the east?

Then why not yet in Ts’ang-wu?

In Ts’ang-wu so much rotting grain,

No good as provisions for troops.

The troops are all vagrants.

On early march so much aching grief.

This short song may be read at several different levels. In general it is a song about war. Whether is is construed as a plaint against war or as a more militaristic song depends on which textual variants one accepts. My own translation is based on the text in the compilation of Shen Yüeh in AD 488, ‘Treatise on Music’, which text is reproduced by Kuo in his anthology. The variants occur in the first couplet. The Yüan commentator, Tso K’o-ming (14th century AD) amends the reading ‘Light in the east?’ (Tung kuang hu), to ‘Tung-kuang (place-name) at peace’ (Tung-kuang p’ing, hu > p’ing). In fact, the two characters, hu and p’ing, are fairly similar. Tso makes the same amendment in the second line: ‘Ts’ang-wu why not yet?’ (Ts’ang-wu ho pu hu), becomes ‘Ts’ang-wu why not at peace’ (Tsang-wu ho pu p’ing). Tso’s reading makes the song’s opening more pugnacious than the fifth-century text. His version reads: ‘Tung-kuang is at peace,/ Then why is Ts’ang-wu not at peace?’ The soldiers want to get on with the war, and then return home. Militarism tinged with nostalgia informs the Tso version.6 War-weariness dominated by nostalgia and despair informs the text of the Shen Yüeh and of Kuo Mao-ch’ien. I prefer to reject Tso’s suggested amendment and retain the earliest text’s reading.

The song has been taken as the expression of an historical episode of the year 112 BC when Emperor Wu of the Han sent a military expedition against Nan-Yüeh kingdom, in the south-east of the empire. The war was unpopular, and officers found it difficult to muster an army, so they pressed convicts released by a general amnesty into military service. One contingent was ordered to enter Ts’ang-wu. Eventually, the expedition was successful and Nan-Yüeh was conquered.7 It is recorded that prayers for the success of the campaign were offered to the deity Great Unity and ‘… prayers for the soldiers were offered’ prior to this campaign, the Han historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien himself taking the spirit banner and pointing ‘… it at the country that was about to be attacked.’ In 111 BC, ‘… prayers of thanksgiving for the success of the expedition to Southern Yüeh [Nan-Yüeh] were offered to the Great Unity and the Earth Lord.’8 One flaw in this attempt at historical reconstruction of the song is that the word ‘vagrants’ (yu-tang-tzu), does not necessarily mean criminals; in Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s history the soldiers are explicitly described as exconvicts. 119By the same process of arbitrary inference the song might also be read on a mythological level. If the character for Ts’ang in Ts’ang-wu is emended to Ts’ang with Radical 140 (an amendment suggested by the Chung-hua editors of Kuo’s Anthology), we arrive at the mountain named Ts’ang-wu where the legendary Emperor Shun, the virtuous and sage ruler, died. The song might then be construed as an overt complaint to the sage’s spirit. The Chinese written language lends itself to this sort of reconstruction, based on loan-words and puns, an impulse which must be held severely in check! I prefer to read the song as an ahistorical war plaint.

If the early version of the song-text is accepted, the piece becomes an impersonal plaint of a soldier weary of war. The song’s movement is based on an almost imperceptible image of light. The title and the first line announce the dawn, signalling another day of misery for the reluctant soldier and suggesting a glimmer of hope that the expedition might soon be over. Faint though this image of light is, it is negated by the song’s closure. In Ts’ang-wu all is darkness and gloom; the army is hungry, bewildered, and homesick. The song is also based on realism. It is introduced through an ironic pun on the name Ts’ang-wu; ts’ang is a granary. But instead of a well-stocked granary, the soldiers on the march see rotting grain. This realistic detail recalls other Han songs, especially those taken as political prophecies, such as ‘Short Wheat’, which complain of ruined harvests when men are taken from the land. The Western dictum, ‘An army marches on its stomach’, acquires a deeper significance in the Chinese context because in numerous songs and ballads the characters often urge each other ‘Try and eat’ at a time of emotional crisis.9 The realistic mode springs from an innate pragmatism. At the end of the song the soldier voices the grief felt by one and all, echoing the Chou soldier of long ago, ‘My heart is sad within’. The anonymous Han singer seeks to win sympathy from his audience and to make them identify with the soldiers’ fate. It is mainly for this reason that I find the historical interpretation so forced. If, as the Han historian stated, the army was made up of criminals, then this sympathy for the soldiers would not be so prompt. The song is best read, therefore, as the plaint of the ordinary foot-soldier anywhere and at any time against the hardships of a forced march, inadequate provisions, and against war itself.10

We Fought South of the City Wall

We fought south of the city wall.

We died north of the ramparts.

In the wilderness we dead lie unburied, fodder for crows. 120

Tell the crows for us:

‘We’ve always been brave men!

In the wilderness we dead clearly lie unburied,

So how can our rotting flesh flee from you?’

Waters deep, rushing, rushing,

Reeds and rushes, darkening, darkening.

Heroic horsemen fought and died fighting,

Flagging horses whinnied in panic.

Raftered houses we built,

And south, alas! and north;

If grain and millet aren’t reaped, what will you eat, Lord?

We longed to be loyal vassals, but how can that be?

I remember you, good vassals,

Good vassals I truly remember:

In the dawn you went out to glory,

At nightfall you did not return.

The opening lines establish a contrast between the city and the wilderness. The dividing line between the two is the city wall and ramparts. We have seen elsewhere how the city gate functions as a symbolic boundary between the security of daily life and the world of the dead or some catastrophe beyond. Here the city, for which men died fighting, represents safety and civilization. The wilderness where the battle took place represents danger and barbarism. The semantic contrast is heightened by the parallelism of ‘south’ and ‘north’, and ‘fought’ and ‘died’ in the first couplet. The neatness of the couplet’s structure contrasts with its content and with the ragged, untidy structure of the following passages which recount the horror of death and the confusion of the battle. The third line of the song fulfils the soldiers’ horror of the wilderness with the taboo image of dead bodies; for a body to be exposed without burial was considered to be the worst fate that could befall a man. The revulsion is expressed through the stark realism of ‘fodder for crows’. No metaphor so savage had appeared in earlier poetic diction, nor did it find an echo in the later literary tradition. War imagery in the late and post-Han era tended to become muted and abstract, often stylized, and sometimes decorative. ‘Their white bones lay and bleached in the wilderness’ was the favourite image of the aftermath of war, rather than the realistic, but brutal image of carrion.11

The starkness of the narrative continues with the voice of the dead defiantly addressing the carrion crows. Unfortunately, the text becomes garbled at this point. Line 4 has a variant which reads: ‘We address the crows’. Line 5 has a variant making ‘brave’ into the verb ‘wail’. Yü Kuan-ying prefers this reading, rendering the line, ‘Wail, please, for our men!’ He interprets this as a request to perform the old custom of ‘summoning the soul’ of the dead and wailing for them before the crows eat their 121flesh.12 This is ingenious. In principle, however, I would oppose any amendment by a modern author when the line reads perfectly well as it stands. If the original text is retained, the words of the soldier are addressed to the crows; they are not a plea, but a defiant challenge.13

A brief lyrical passage follows the realism. It serves to relieve the harshness of the first part of the narrative by suggesting a scene of refreshing respite from the savagery of battle. This couplet, ‘Waters deep … darkening’, also acts as a transition to a passage which shifts the time from the present back to the scene of the battle before the men died and even further back to their homes before the war began. The description of the battle is terse; although it praises the soldiers for their heroism to the last, it does not constitute a glorification of war. Rather it conveys the desperation and confusion of defeat. This brief flash-back to the battle is effective and eloquent.

The second flash-back to the soldiers’ homes is again, unfortunately, beset with textual problems. One problem involves a word which may be taken as a nonsense word, or as a word with meaning in the narrative, in lines 12 and 13. Yü Kuan-ying takes the word liang to be a nonsense word in line 12. Liang may also be read as ‘bridge’, giving ‘(sentry) huts built on the bridge’ for line 12, which is how Burton Watson and Peking University’s editors read it. Liang also means the ‘ridge-pole’ of a house, which is how I read it: ‘Raftered houses we built’. Line 13 also contains the same liang character. Yü and Watson both read it as a nonsense word, and so do I in this instance, rendering it as ‘alas!’.14 In the early text of Shen Yüeh’s ‘Treatise’, line 14 reads ‘Grain, millet, reaped, Lord what eat?’ in which the particle erh after ‘millet’ is amended by most commentators to pu, ‘not’ giving: ‘If grain and millet aren’t reaped, what will you eat, Lord?’ I have adopted this sensible amendment. I interpret this passage as a flash-back to the time when the men were on their farms in the service of their lord. They express their loyalty to him even while they are dead, and regret that their farms are abandoned and the crop will not be harvested. The same topos of war occurs in ‘Short Wheat’. The dead also regret that they can no longer serve their lord: ‘… what will you eat, Lord?’ and ‘We longed to be loyal vassals, but how can that be?’

The last section of the song, lines 14 to 17, contains the vocabulary of the quasi-feudal system prevailing during the Chou: chün (lord), chung ch’en (loyal vassals), liang ch’en (good vassals). It is possible that the song dates from the early Han when the remnants of the system were still evident, if not in socio-political reality, then certainly in speech patterns and cultural attitudes. The song closes with resonant echoes. The Chou soldier had complained: ‘we marched away but do not come back’, and the Ch’u hymn sang: ‘They went out never more to return’.15 The Han song ends in an elegiac mood. 122

There are several features of song and ballad in this piece. The song rushes into a crisis; the battle is over, but the dead scornfully challenge their cruel avian companions. They bitterly recall their defeat, they remember their homes and farms, and they shamefully apologise to their lord. Speech punctuates the narrative, the indeterminate nature of the song making it hard to decide who the speaker is at times. Questions are asked, which hang in the air unanswered. The narrative reveals abrupt shifts in setting, speaker, and tone. Parallelism in the opening and closing couplets, and the central passage seem to bring order to the chaos of the narrative, but perhaps in the end only heighten the sense of confusion. The confusion of the song is deliberate; war has ruined the lives of honest, brave men—the singer is not concerned with themes of peace and harmony. The agitation of the song is mainly conveyed through the shift in speaker. It is hard to tell if the speaker of the whole narrative is the same, or if there are different speakers. Is the omniscient, omnipresent narrator of the first couplets, who surveys the grisly scene of defeat, the same as the survivor of the bitter fight who voices the final lament? Is the speaker of the first part the spokesman for a group of local men, while the speaker of the final part their lord speaking for the dead from their local district? Certainly, the speaker of the final quatrain who voices quiet thanks for the sacrifice of human life is different in tone and diction from the rest of the narrative. In fact, almost every translation of this song offers a different story with different spoken parts assigned to the characters. My own version is far from secure, but it tries to reconstruct a reasonable narrative. Despite its difficulties of inter­pretation, and fraught as it is with textual problems, this song retains its age-old power to inspire admiration and sympathy.16

Watering Horses at a Long Wall Hole

Green, green river bank grass.

Skeins, skeins of longing for the far road.

The far road I cannot bear to long for.

In bed at night I see him in dreams,

Dream I see him by my side.

Suddenly I wake in another town,

Another town, each in different parts.

I toss and turn, see him no more.

Withered mulberry knows wind from the skies.

Ocean waters know chill from the skies.

I go indoors, everyone self-absorbed,

Who wants to speak for me?

A traveller came from far away, 123

He brought me a double-carp.

I call my boy to ‘cook the carp’.

Inside there is a white silk letter.

I kneel down and read the white silk letter.

What sort of letter is it then?

Above it says, ‘Try and eat’.

Below it says, ‘I’ll always love you’.

The title of this song provides its narrative background. The Long Wall was a series of fortifications along the borders of the northernmost states of the Chou era which were constructed to keep out marauding tribes­men of the steppes. In the Ch’in Dynasty much work was done by conscript labour to link this series of disconnected fortifications, and by the Han the defense line stretched from the east as far as Tun-huang in the west. The cost in human life was enormous. Apart from the output of labour in constructing the wall, this part of China required a huge defense army since it was the most vulnerable border. Military outposts became Han colonies. In his preface to this song Kuo Mao-ch’ien cites a popular song, min-ko, which evokes the waste of human life in building and guarding this fortified wall:

If a son is born, mind you don’t raise him!

If a girl is born, feed her on dried meat.

Don’t you see below the Long Wall

Corpses and skeletons prop each other up?17

(The term, ‘dried meat’, far from being derogatory, implies that the girl in the family will be cherished and fed well because she will not be torn from the family to serve the nation.) The narrative of ‘Watering Horses at a Long Wall Hole’ may be inferred in this way: a woman looks out from her home beside a river in spring and watches the road leading out of the village. She longs for her lover, or husband, who has left for corvée work on the Long Wall. She has not heard from him for some time. Her only contact with him is through memories and dreams. She has no one to confide in and no one who can help her. One day a traveller from the far north brings her a letter from her lover or husband. She reads it in a submissive pose. There is no news of his return, but he tries to cheer her up and vows eternal love. The implication is that they will never meet again.

The song is rich in balladic features. Repetition is the key device in the first eight lines: the binome ‘Green, green’ denoting spring and youthful beauty parallels ‘Skeins, skeins’ which suggests an endless thread of silk (ssu, a pun for love). The image of the ‘far road’ along which the lover, or husband, travelled is repeated, and the word for love or longing, 124‘Dreams’, and ‘another town’ conclude the pattern of repeated echoes. The device continues in the last section of the song with the new image of the letter, bringing both hope and despair; the word ‘letter’ is repeated three times, ‘white silk letter’ twice, and ‘carp’ twice.

The next couplet is a brief lyrical interlude marking a transition from the song’s opening lyricism and its more prosaic closure. This interlude ends the soft lyrical imagery of spring in the first passage. The absence of love makes the world seem a colder place to the woman who is left behind. Mulberry has an association with a woman’s work; its leaves are picked in spring to feed silkworms, and their cocoons are washed before their silk thread is spun and woven. The mulberry image therefore resumes the semantic pun of ‘Skeins’ and ‘longing’, but now serves as a negative image of neglect. The use of tree imagery also suggests the fixed place of a woman at home who cannot travel; she is rooted in domesticity. The letter must come from a traveller to her. The image of water in this transitional couplet also denotes the feminine psyche, from its association with passivity in philosophical Taoism and its significance in the Five Elements Theory.18 This unobtrusive couplet also contains a classical allusion. Poem no. 58 of the Book of Poetry uses the mulberry image to narrate the story of a wife who has been abandoned by her husband; the seasons of the mulberry mark the stages of her marriage up to her present discontent:

When the mulberry tree sheds it leaves,

they are yellow and drop;

since I went to you,

for three years I have eaten poverty;

(and now) the waters of the K’i are voluminous,

they wet the curtains of my carriage.19

The phrases in the Chou poem, ‘went to you’ and ‘curtains of my carriage’, mean marriage and divorce. While the quotation or allusion in the Han song does not mirror the same narrative as the classic, it acts as a mood indicator and links the desolate woman of the Han song with the grieving wife of the Chou classic.

The last section of the song moves away from the pattern of memory and echo. It becomes a prosaic narrative. A letter comes to the woman from the man at the Long Wall telling her there is no hope of a reunion, and so fulfilling the premonition of tragedy in the central lyrical couplet. A ‘double-carp’ is a euphemism for a letter; it is a wooden container shaped like two carp with a silk letter inside; opening the container is euphemistically called ‘cook the carp’. The carp symbolizes fertility, a reference which suggests that the woman in the song is still young and fertile. The symbolism is ironic, since she will never meet her lover or 125husband again, and she appears not to have started a family before he left.20 The prosaic tone continues with quotations from the letter, its neat parallelism contrasting with the emotional confusion conveyed in the opening passage of the whole song. In its formal neatness the technique suggests that the woman will bear her grief with quiet dignity. The dramatic technique of the question and answer formula are rightly reserved for the song’s closure. The direct speech is restrained and dignified. The last passage contains several commonplace expressions. ‘A traveller came from far away’ is the same as line 7 of no. 17 of the ‘Nineteen Old Poems’, and both texts share the same letter, the same message of undying love, and the same female persona.21 Poem no. 1 of the same Han series resembles the last couplet of the Han song’s closure.22 The first line of the Han song is almost the same as that of no. 2 of the same series, which narrates the story of a deserted entertainer.23

In some anthologies this song is attributed to the Latter Han poet, Ts’ai Yung; for example, New Songs from a Jade Terrace compiled in the mid-sixth century AD.24 But one slightly earlier anthology, Anthology of Literature, and the later Compendium of Literature both list the song as an anonymous old yüeh-fu poem, and Kuo Mao-ch’ien follows them.25 The song’s cogent use of the techniques of popular song and ballad, its literary reference, and its key trope of the letter with its refined epithets, suggest the confident hand of a literate composer.26

At Fifteen I Joined the Army

At fifteen I joined the army,

At eighty I first came home.

On the road I met a villager,

‘At my home what kin are there?’

‘Look over there—that’s your home!’

Pine, cypress, burial mounds piled, piled high,

Hares going in through dog-holes,

Pheasants flying in through rafter tops;

The inner garden grown wild with corn,

Over the well wild mallow growing.

I pound grain to serve for a meal,

I pick mallow to serve for broth.

Once broth and meal are cooked

I’m at a loss to know whom to feed.

I leave by the gates, look east.

Tears fall and soak my clothes.

The narrative is constructed throughout in lines of formal parallelism. The tidiness of the narrative line serves to underscore the confusion of 126the old soldier coming home after a lifetime in the army. He does not remember where his home is, nor does he know who might be his relatives after his absence of some generations. He finds his home has been destroyed by some unexplained disaster. Everything has reverted to wilderness: his home has become a graveyard inhabited by wild creatures; his kitchen garden has gone to seed. The sub-text of the song suggests that the old man must have been looking forward to his family reunion as he walked along the road to the village; home (chia) is his first word to his fellow villager, a stranger to him. Yet despite his eagerness at coming home his words to the villager are restrained and formal, and this restraint foreshadows the quiet dignity with which he surveys the scene of desolation of his former home. No loud lament, but diligent calm is his response to the crisis. His gesture of preparing food might be seen as a topos of realism in these songs of war and its aftermath. The gesture tells us something of the character of the veteran. Sixty-five years of army drill have trained him to be busy and to survive. At the end, however, his emotions spill over his restraint, because he must now, and for ever, go through the communal act of eating in isolation. He faces east, source of light and hope, and silently weeps. All his life the soldier believed that the chaos of war was related to his army job, not to his house and home. He finds at the end of his hard life that the chaos of some unknown event has engulfed his family and friends. The disparity between his expectation and the reality he encounters creates an ironic conflict between time past and time present. The formal parallelism of the piece reinforces the formal character of the long-trained veteran, but at the same time runs counter to the song’s emotional confusion, generating a second layer of irony.

The anti-war sentiment of this piece is focussed on the character of the simple, frail old man, creating a mood of pathos. His confusion, moderated by formality and restraint, begs the question, ‘Why?’. In terms of poetic rhetoric the question remains unanswered. Yet a response arises from the ironic refrain of the temporal conflict and the formal parallelism. In a sense, a response also arises from the anonymous singer’s decision to cast the main character in the mould of an unknown veteran, a low-ranking soldier, who stands against the forces of barbarism, venerable and alone. The singer persuades the audience to believe that despite the venerable age and feeble body of the veteran, he will survive and build a new future. This will be possible because of his stoicism, rooted in rural values, and his sense of duty, instilled by army service. Such courage, tempered by humane courtesy, becomes the soul of rural China.

Kuo prefaces this narrative with a passage of eight lines:

Burning fires set wild fields ablaze,

Wild ducks fly up to skies. 127

A young lad marries a widow,

A buxom lass laughs fit to kill.

Tall, tall, hilltop tree;

When the wind blows, leaves fall and are gone,

Once gone many thousand miles,

How will they come back to their old home?

While it is customary for songs and ballads of the Han to have a prelude, which is often enigmatic in its imagery and sometimes seemingly unrelated to the narrative theme, this prelude is usually only one couplet long. Here the eight-line passage preceding the narrative proper about the soldier seems too long to serve as a prelude in the ordinary sense. It constitutes a separate poem, a regular, pentasyllabic, eight-line piece on the theme of lifelong separation from home. The first image of fires in the plain suggests the turmoil of war in the countryside. The next image of ducks flying high continues this idea, denoting the flight of all living creatures from their homes. The second couplet seems to express the idea that when menfolk go off to war and get killed, the usual behaviour of the local people becomes erratic: a war widow will marry a young man instead of remaining chaste. The final image of the tree might represent the village community; when disaster hits the village, the villagers flee and sometimes never return. It is easy to see why such a passage might have become attached to the narrative beginning ‘At fifteen I joined the army’, for it describes the sort of events which might have occurred in the veteran’s own village before he returned home. Most anthologies present the piece as I have, without the prelude Kuo provided for it.

The characterization and general mode of expression of the song contrast markedly with Han songs more recognizably popular in expression, such as ‘We Fought South of the City Wall’, ‘The Ailing Wife’, and ‘East Gate’. Its sophisticated techniques indicate that it is more likely to be the composition of a lettered poet who adapted the theme from a popular song for the more formal ku-shih genre. In fact, it is often classified as a ku-shih, old poem, as is the ‘The Pomelo’.27 Despite these reservations, I include it among the Han songs and ballads because it is a borderline case and because it may be viewed as a transitional piece between the popular song style and the formal literary style.28


1 The last section of ‘We Fought South of the City Wall’ appears to reflect the old values, in which a vassal addresses his lord and the lord praises his loyal vassals who have sacrificed their lives for him. The song is so beset with problems, however, that this interpretation is conjectural.

2 Waley, The Book of Songs, Chapter 3, ‘Warriors and Battles’, and Karlgren, The Book of Odes‚ poem nos. 31, 36, 156, 167, 181, 185, 204, 232, 234.

3 Hawkes, Ch’u Tz’u, ‘The Nine Songs’, ‘The Spirits of the Fallen’, pp. 43–4,

4 Waley, op. cit., poem no. 31, Waley’s no. 121, p. 112.

5 Hawkes, id., p. 44, lines 17–8.

6 Tso K’o-ming, Ancient Yüeh-fu, SKCS 4.4b. Tung-kuang is in modern Hopei to the north, Ts’ang-wu is south in Kwangsi; Tso’s version thus creates a spatial parallelism. Feng Wei-no, Notes on Ancient Poetry, SKCS 2, ch. 16.2a, retains the repetition of hu, while noting the variant p’ing.

7 Watson, Records (Shih chi, ch. 113), Vol. 2, p. 248.

8 Id., (Shih chich. 28), p. 54. Watson translates Hou t’u as ‘Earth Lord’, but I prefer Empress Earth, following Chavannes; see Chapter One, n. 38.

9 ‘Try and eat’ belongs to the closure of ‘Watering Horses at a Long Wall Hole’, which is similar to the closure of no. 1 of the ‘Nineteen Old Poems’, Watson, Chinese Lyricism, p. 20. The Western quotation, attributed to Napoleon, probably derives from Las Cases, Mémorial de Ste-Hélène, 1816.

10 While not entirely dismissing the historical interpretation, Diény, Aux origines, p. 107, points to these general themes; he translates, annotates, and discusses the song, pp. 106–07. Chih-chiang, Record of Ancient and Modern Music, Han Wei i-shu ch’ao, ch. 52.12, cites Chang Yung, Arts Record of the Correct Music of the Era AD 424–454, to the effect that this song title was originally for unaccompanied strings with no vocal part, but that a Wei Dynasty composer provided a music accompaniment for it. The metre is pentasyllabic, except for the trisyllabic first line. The text is in Shen Yüeh, ‘Treatise on Music’, ch. 21, ‘Concerted’ category, p. 605, and in Kuo, ch. 27, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 2, Concerted Pieces, Part 2’, pp. 394–95.

11 Quotation from Ts’ao Ts’ao, ‘Graveyard Song’, J. D. Frodsham and Ch’eng Hsi, trans., An Anthology of Chinese Verse, Han Wei, Chin, and the Northern and Southern Dynasties (1967), p. 29, line 13.

12 Yü, Anthology, p. 4; the custom is discussed in Hawkes, op. cit., pp. 101–02.

13 A dialogue between the dead and the living is a technique used in Chuang Tzu, ch. 18, in which Chuang Tzu finds a skull and asks how it came to its sorry state. He uses the skull as a pillow and sleeps; then in a dream the skull tells him its life story. Graham, Chuang-tzū, pp. 124–5.197

14 Yü, id., p. 4; Watson, The Columbia Book, p. 79; Peking University, Reference Materials, pp. 505–06.

15 Karlgren, op. cit., poem no. 167, stanza 3, last line, p. 112; Hawkes, op. cit., ‘The Spirits of the Fallen’, p. 44, line 11.

16 The metre is irregular. The first passage to line 7 is: 3–3–7–4–4–5–7; the lyrical couplet, lines 8–9 is tetrasyllabic; lines 10–11 are pentasyllabic; the next quatrain is: 3–6–7–7; the final quatrain is: 4–5–4–4. This closure might be viewed as an envoi, which is usually metrically regular; if the redundant word ‘truly’ (ch’eng) were omitted, the closure would then be a typical tetrasyllabic luan-envoi. The text is in Shen, ch. 22, ‘Han Songs for the Nao-bell’ category, p. 641, and Kuo, ch. 16, ‘Words for Drumming and Blowing Pieces, Part 1, Han Songs for the Nao-bell’, p. 228.

17 This citation from a min-ko suggests that it belongs to a narrative. It closely resembles lines 21–4 of Ch’en Lin’s (d. AD 217) imitation of the same yüeh-fu, ‘Watering Horses at a Long Wall Hole’; Ch’en’s narrative is presented from the husband’s point of view. Birrell, New Songs, pp. 48–9.

18 Within this system the attributes of water belong to this set of correspondences: winter, north, cold, black, female, and yin.

19 Karlgren, The Book of Odes, p. 41, stanza 4, first 6 lines (translator’s explanatory parentheses); the ‘K’i’ is Ch’i River of the ancient state of Wei (modern Honan).

20 Line 15 of the song ambiguously reads, hu erh, lit. ‘call boy’; this might mean that the woman calls her servant boy to open the wooden box containing the letter, or it might mean that she calls her own children to read the letter to them. The word hu is used in the phrase ch’uan hu in ‘The Ailing Wife’, line 2, to mean call for, or send for someone to come to one; in this context the wife calls her husband to her bedside. In general, hu has a peremptory tone denoting an order to an inferior. The word erh is used in ‘The Ailing Wife’, line 6, ‘East Gate’, long version, lines 8 and 13, and ‘East Gate’, short version, lines 8 and 12, to mean children or infants. In ‘Watering Horses’, the woman might be calling for her children to come to her, but I have chosen a more conservative reading in my translation.

21 Watson, The Columbia Book, p. 102.

22 Id., p. 96.

23 Ibid.

24 Birrell, id., Chapter 1, pp. 47–8.

25 Anthology of Literature (Wen hsüan), SPTK 27.19b–20b, Compendium of Literature, ch. 41.78.

26 Pentasyllabic. Kuo, ch. 38, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 13, Zither-mode Pieces, Part 3’, p. 556.

27 E.g., Feng, Notes on Ancient Poetry, SKCS 3, ch. 20.7a–b.

28 Kuo places this piece among songs of the Liang Dynasty, but it is more usually assigned to the Han. The metre is pentasyllabic, including the extra prelude. The text is in Kuo, ch. 25, ‘Words for Horizontal Flute Pieces, Part 5, Liang Pieces for Drumming, Horn, and Horizontal Flute’, p. 365. Kuo’s title for the whole 24-line piece with the prelude is ‘Words for the Chestnut Roan Horse Song’.

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