Fighting South of the Wall

by Li Bai (Li Po), ca. 746

Last year we fought at the source of the Sanggan River;
This year in Xinjiang, on the road to Conghe.
We pasture our horses on the snowy slopes of Tian Shan,
And rinse our weapons in the Caspian Sea.
The front stretches for ten thousand miles;
Our troops are all worn out, too old to fight.
For the Huns, fighting and slaughter take the place of plowing;
From ancient times, their fields of yellow sand have grown nothing but bones.
The Qin Emperor built the Great Wall to keep them at bay,
And a thousand years later, we’re still tending the beacons.
Again and again the beacon fires are lit,
And war rages on without end.
Men die fighting hand-to-hand;
The screams of fallen horses reach to the heavens.
Kites and vultures gorge on human entrails, carry them off,
And leave them hanging from withered mulberry branches.
Officers and soldiers bloody the grass and bushes;
What good are the generals’ strategies now?
They must know that war is a terrible tool.
The true sage never makes use of it.

Translated with the help of a dictionary. I’m reasonably certain I got the gist of it, though.

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  1. Beautiful; since I’m learning Classical Chinese now, I can “hear” faintly–do to my own blundering grip on the language, not your translation–the cadence of the characters. I’d love to see the original, in part because the sparity you brought to your translation so suits the brutal and distance places of the poem (Tian Shan, the Gobi or the Taklamakan) and war. Very clean images. Well done and thank you.


  2. Hey, Sunim, long time no “see”! Glad you liked this. You should be able to find the original readily – an often-anthologized work by one of the Tang Dynasty’s two most famous poets. (I’m working on one by the other, Du Fu, now.)

    Hi, Richard. Violence is exciting – which is why bloody epics far outnumber anti-war poems, despite what some people in Poets Against The War may tell you.


  3. Well, I’m none the wiser, Dave, & little point in reaching for a dictionary to try to catch you out! A fine piece of documentary poetry, whatever its provenance.


  4. Nice, Dave, and depressing. We humans certainly don’t learn much.

    Soen Joon, great to see you!!


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