Ballad of the Army Carts

by Du Fu (Tu Fu), ca. 750

The carts squeak and rattle,
The horses neigh and neigh.
Clouds of dust hide the bridge across the River Wei.
Bows and arrows at their waists, the conscripts file out;
Mothers, fathers, wives and children rush onto the highway.
Hands clutch, boots tromp, bare feet stand still.
The wailing rises straight to heaven — no need to pray.

I walk alongside the column, ask what’s going on.
A soldier says simply: “They call up more every day.

“Some of us were sent north to the Yellow River at age fifteen,
And now at forty we’re heading off to the garrisons in the west.
On our first tour, the village headman had to tie our bandannas for us.
When we came back, our hair was white, but still there’s more unrest.
The frontier garrisons run with blood, enough to fill an ocean,
But the Martial Emperor’s territorial ambitions have yet to crest.
In the hundred districts east of the mountains, throughout the land of Han,
There must be ten thousand villages that brambles now infest.
Even if wives are strong enough to handle a hoe and plow,
The crops grow every which way, the fields are all a mess.
It’s hardest for the Shanxi men, with their reputations as fighters:
They’re rounded up like dogs or chickens, every male impressed.

“But sir, though it’s good of you to ask,
Complaining isn’t part of the soldier’s task.
We can only shake our heads. Take this winter:
The Shanxi troops were never sent home.
The District Officers are demanding the land tax,
But where will it come from? You can’t get blood from a stone!
I honestly think it’s bad luck to bear a son now,
It’s better to have a daughter: at least she can marry
And live with the neighbors next door.
But a son will end up lying on some distant prairie.

“Have you ever been to the Blue Sea — Kokonor?
From ancient times, the bleached bones lie thick along its shore.
The new ghosts moan and mutter,
The older ghosts cry:
Thin chirps and twitters, under a gray and dripping sky.”

I am indebted to David Hawkes’ detailed exegesis in A Little Primer of Tu Fu (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967) — highly recommended for anyone with more than a smidgen of Chinese. I have attempted to convey something of the rhythm and end-rhymes of the original, so the translation is a little freer than it might otherwise have been.

In his commentary, Hawkes notes that the poem was probably written to protest “a new drafting of reservists and ‘volunteers’ to fight against the Tibetans. … The old system of militia service which took the peasants away for regular periods of unpaid National Service was superseded a generation before the date of the poem by the recruitment of paid regulars who were kept on reserve and called out intermittently as occasion arose. Unfortunately the new system did not produce an adequate intake of recruits, and press-gang methods were frequently resorted to in order to raise armies for unpopular campaigns.”

8 Replies to “Ballad of the Army Carts”

  1. Dave,

    Well, I’ve kept lurking a bit here and there, you know. Classical Chinese was bound to pull me out of the woodwork (I can say it’s part of officially sanctioned “study” to read translations of poetry).

    I enjoyed the rhythm and rhyme you’ve brought into the English, especially since the poem opens with the “squeak and rattle” of carts, and horses, two strangely beguiling rhythms. I’ll look up the primer you’ve mentioned, and I’ve already ear-marked an anthology of poetry that includes these two on my to-buy list.

  2. Hi, Lucy – Thanks for the appreciative comment.

    Soen Joon – In the original, the sounds were represented by onomatopoeia, which at first I thought I might imitate, but it seemed impossible to avoid a children’s-book ambiance if I began that way. The onomatopoeia for ghosts at the end employed a character (repeated once, as with the others) typically used to represent the chirping of birds, according to Hawkes, and it occurred to me that Du Fu might’ve been implying that the spirits were embodied by birds in some fashion. What’s certain, though, is that we can’t really convey in an English translation the sense of anguish that the thought of an improper burial would provoke for a traditional Chinese (or Japanese, or Korean) reader. Without descendants performing the proper burial and memorial rites, one’s spirit would be condemned to eternal homelessness and unquenchable craving, as I understand it.

  3. One of my favorite Tu Fu poems — gives you that vast panoramic sweep, soldiers fighting generation after generation in godforsaken places on the whim of a martial emperor. Made just that much more effective by the fact that we’re watching the same thing go on, fourteen hundred years (or whatever it is) later. A good corrective to the view, whether you’re fer it or agin it, that there’s anything unusual, for good or ill, about the particular war we happen to be having now. More bones by the Blue Sea, that’s all.

  4. Oh, and what I meant to say — terrific translation. I think you get the voices (of the poet, of the soldier, of the carts) exactly beautifully right.

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