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.”