A Song of the Yan Country
- Poetry of Gao Shi


- Last updated: 2024-04-22 14:49:14

A Song of the Yan Country by Gao Shi
















English Translation

In the sixth year of Kaiyuan, a friend returned from the border and showed me the Yan Song. Moved by what he told me of the expedition, I have written this poem to the same rhymes.

The northeastern border of China was dark with smoke and dust.

To repel the savage invaders, our generals, leaving their families,

Strode forth together, looking as heroes should look;

And having received from the Emperor his most gracious favour,

They marched to the beat of gong and drum through the Elm Pass.

They circled the Stone Tablet with a line of waving flags,

Till their captains over the Sea of Sand were twanging feathered orders.

The Tartar chieftain's hunting-fires glimmered along Wolf Mountain,

And heights and rivers were cold and bleak there at the outer border;

But soon the barbarians' horses were plunging through wind and rain.

Half of our men at the front were killed, but the other half are living,

And still at the camp beautiful girls dance for them and sing.

...As autumn ends in the grey sand, with the grasses all withered,

The few surviving watchers by the lonely wall at sunset,

Serving in a good cause, hold life and the foeman lightly.

And yet, for all that they have done, Elm Pass is still unsafe.

Still at the front, iron armour is worn and battered thin,

And here at home food-sticks are made of jade tears.

Still in this southern city young wives' hearts are breaking,

While soldiers at the northern border vainly look toward home.

The fury of the wind cuts our men's advance

In a place of death and blue void, with nothingness ahead.

Three times a day a cloud of slaughter rises over the camp;

And all night long the hour-drums shake their chilly booming,

Until white swords can be seen again, spattered with red blood.

...When death becomes a duty, who stops to think of fame?

Yet in speaking of the rigours of warfare on the desert

We name to this day Li, the great General, who lived long ago.


Why Chinese poems is so special?
The most distinctive features of Chinese poetry are: concision- many poems are only four lines, and few are much longer than eight; ambiguity- number, tense and parts of speech are often undetermined, creating particularly rich interpretative possibilities; and structure- most poems follow quite strict formal patterns which have beauty in themselves as well as highlighting meaningful contrasts.
How to read a Chinese poem?
Like an English poem, but more so. Everything is there for a reason, so try to find that reason. Think about all the possible connotations, and be aware of the different possibilities of number and tense. Look for contrasts: within lines, between the lines of each couplet and between successive couplets. Above all, don't worry about what the poet meant- find your meaning.

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