兵車行 Bīng-chē xíng (Ballad of the Army Carts)

Listen to the Poem in Chinese

Ballad of the Army Carts – Read by Yong Cai

Listen to the Poem in English

Ballad of the Army Carts – Read by Audrey Shu

Du Fu (杜甫) – Original Text (c. 750 AD)

車轔轔
1. Chē lín-lín,

馬蕭蕭
2. Mǎ xiāo-xiāo,

行人弓箭各在腰
3. Xíng-rén gōng-jiàn gè zài yāo,

爺孃妻子走相送
4. Yè-niáng qī-zǐ zǒu xiāng-sòng,

塵埃不見咸陽橋
5. Chén-āi bū jiàn Xiān-yáng-qiáo.

牽衣頓足攔道哭
6. Qiān yī dùn zú lán dào kū,

哭聲直上干雲霄
7. Kū-shēng zhí-shàng gān yún-xiāo.

道旁過者問行人
8. Dào-páng guò-zhě wèn xíng-rén,

行人但云點行頻
9. Xíng-rén dàn yún: ‘Diǎn-xíng pín.

或從十五北防河
10. ‘Huò cóng shí-wǔ běi fāng Hé,

便至四十西營田
11. ‘Biàn zhì sì-shí xī yīng-tián.

去時里正與裹頭
12. ‘Qù shí lǐ-zhèng yǔ guǒ tóu,

歸來頭白還戍邊
13. ‘Guī-lái tóu bái huán shù-biān.

邊亭流血成海水
14. ‘Biān-tīng liú-xuě chéng hǎi-shǔi,

武皇開邊意未已
15. ‘Wǔ-huáng kāi-biān yì wèi yǐ.

君不聞漢家山東二百州
16. ‘Jūn bū wén Hàn-jiā shān-dōng ér-bǎi zhōu,

千村萬落生荆杞
17. ‘Qiān cūn wàn luò shēng jīng qǐ.

縱有健婦把鋤犂
18. ‘Zòng yǒu jiàn fù bǎ chú lí,

禾生隴畝無東西
19. ‘Hé shēng lǒng-mǔ wú dōng xī.

況復秦兵耐苦戰
20. ‘Kuàng fù Qín bīng nài kǔ-zhàn,

被驅不異犬與雞
21. ‘Bèi qū bū-yì quǎn yǔ jī.

長者雖有問
22. ‘Zhǎng-zhě suí yǒu wèn,

役夫敢申恨
23. ‘Yì-fū gǎn shēn-hèn?

且如今年冬
24. ‘Qiě rú jīn-nián dōng,

未休關西卒
25. ‘Wèi xiū Guān-xī zú.

縣官急索租
26. ‘Xiàn-guān jí suǒ zū,

租稅從何出
27. ‘Zū-shuì cóng-hé chū?

信知生男惡
28. ‘Xìn zhī shēng nán è,

反是生女好
29. ‘Fǎn-shì shēng nǚ hǎo;

生女猶得嫁比鄰
30. ‘Shēng nǚ yóu dé jià bì-lín,

生男埋沒隨百草
31. ‘Shēng nán mái-mò suí bǎi-cǎo.

君不見青海頭
32. ‘Jūn bū jiàn Qīng-hǎi tóu,

古來白骨無人收
33. ‘Gǔ-lái bái-gǔ wú-rén shōu

新鬼煩怨舊鬼哭
34. ‘Xīn guǐ fán-yuān jiù guǐ kū,

天陰雨溼聲啾啾
35. ‘Tiān yīn yǔ shī shēng jiū-jiū.’

English Translation 1 by David Lunde

Wagons rattling and banging,

horses neighing and snorting,

conscripts marching, each with bow and arrows at his hip,

fathers and mothers, wives and children, running to see them off–

so much dust kicked up you can’t see Xian-yang* Bridge!

And the families pulling at their clothes, stamping feet in anger,

blocking the way and weeping–

ah, the sound of their wailing rises straight up to assault heaven.

And a passerby asks, “What’s going on?”

The soldier says simply, “This happens all the time.

From age fifteen some are sent to guard the north,

and even at forty some work the army farms in the west.

When they leave home, the village headman has to wrap their turbans* for them;

when they come back, white-haired, they’re still guarding the frontier.

The frontier posts run with blood enough to fill an ocean,

and the war-loving Emperor’s dreams of conquest have still not ended.

Hasn’t he heard that in Han*, east of the mountains,

there are two hundred prefectures, thousands and thousands of villages,

growing nothing but thorns?

And even where there is a sturdy wife to handle hoe and plough,

the poor crops grow raggedly in haphazard fields.

It’s even worse for the men of Qin*; they’re such good fighters

Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.

they’re driven from battle to battle like dogs or chickens.

Even though you were kind enough to ask, good sir,

perhaps I shouldn’t express such resentment.

But take this winter, for instance,

they still haven’t demobilized the troops of Guanxi*,

and the tax collectors are pressing everyone for land-fees–

land-fees!–from where is that money supposed to come?

Truly, it is an evil thing to bear a son these days,

it is much better to have daughters;

at least you can marry a daughter to the neighbor,

but a son is born only to die, his body lost in the wild grass.

Has my lord seen the shores of the Kokonor*?

The white bones lie there in drifts, uncollected.

New ghosts complain and old ghosts weep,

under the lowering sky their voices cry out in the rain.”

© by owner. provided at no charge for educational purposes

English Translation 2 by David Hawkes

The carts squeak and trundle, the horses whinny, the conscripts go by, each with a bow and arrows at his waist.  Their fathers, mothers, wives, and children run along beside them to see them off.  The Hsien-yang (Xianyang) bridge cannot be seen for dust.  They pluck at the men’s clothes, stamp their feet, or stand in the way weeping.  The sound of their weeping seems to mount up to the blue sky above.  A passer-by questions the conscripts, and the conscripts reply:

“They’re always mobilizing now!  There are some of us who went north at fifteen to garrison the River and who are still, at forty, being sent to the Military Settlements in the west.  When we left as lads, the village headman had to tie our headcloths for us.  We came back white-haired, but still we have to go back for frontier duty!  On those frontier posts enough blood has flowed to fill the sea, but the Martial Emperor’s dreams of expansion remain unsatisfied.  Haven’t you heard, sir, in our land of Han, throughout the two hundred prefectures east of the mountains briers and brambles are growing in thousands of little hamlets; and though many a sturdy wife turns her own hand to the hoeing and ploughing, the crops grow just anywhere, and you can’t see where one field ends and the next begins?  And it’s even worse for the men from Ch’in (Qin).  Because they make such good fighters, they are driven about this way and that like so many dogs or chickens.

Though you are good enough to ask us, sir, it’s not for the likes of us to complain.  But take the winter, now.  The Kuan-hsi (Guanxi) troops are not being demobilized.  The District Officers press for the land-tax, but where is it to come from?  I really believe it’s a misfortune to have sons.  It’s actually better to have a daughter.  If you have a daughter, you can at least marry her off to one of the neighbors, but a son is born only to end up lying in the grass somewhere, dead and unburied.  Why look, sir, on the shores of the Kokonor the bleached bones have lain for many a long year, but no one has ever gathered them up.  The new ghosts complain and the old ghosts weep, and under the grey and dripping sky the air is full of their baleful twitterings.  

Note:  Chinese place names originally translated using the older Wade-Giles romanization system have also been rendered in the more commonly used pinyin system in parentheses to assist the reader.   

Translation Notes

* Xian-yang: Located near the Tang capital city of Chang’an, site of the modern city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, in central China.

* wrap their turbans: Soldiers of that time commonly wore a white head cloth, similar to what is still worn by some peasants in China today.  The implication is that the conscripts were so young that they didn’t know how to wrap their head cloths, and needed help from elders.

* Han, Qin: Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.

* Guanxi: The area of Guanxi, meaning “west of the passes”, refers to the area around the capital city of Chang’an.

* Kokonor: This is an alternative name for a province in western China, now known as Qinghai, which literally means “blue sea”.  Kokonor Lake, located in Qinghai, is the largest saline lake in China.  

Historical Context

The Tang Dynasty was initially considered a golden age of Chinese arts and culture.  However, by the mid-8th century, the country was in decline due to continuous military campaigns as the imperial rulers attempted to extend their rule over more of Asia.  As described in the poem, “The Ballad of the Army Carts,” these campaigns had a devastating impact on the common people in China.  The conscription of young men to serve in the emperor’s armies depopulated much of rural China of its productive workforce, leading to declines in agriculture and starvation among the population. The lives of the common people were further impacted by heavy taxation imposed to support the emperor’s military campaigns.  These extreme conditions contributed to internal rebellions and power struggles between opposing factions.  

The life of Du Fu, like the whole country, was devastated by the An Lushan Rebellion of 755, and his last 15 years were a time of almost constant unrest. Du Fu’s poetry is nearly unique for his time for his empathetic writings about the sufferings of the common people as China was engulfed in wars of conquest and internal rebellions.

Author Notes

Du Fu (Chinese: 杜甫) (Wade-Giles romanization Tu Fu), who lived from 712–770 A.D., was a Chinese poet and politician of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD).  Along with his elder contemporary and friend Li Bai (also known as Li Po), Du Fu is frequently called the greatest of the Chinese poets. His greatest ambition was to serve his country as a successful government official, but he proved unable to make the necessary accommodations, and in spite of his brilliance, he twice failed the imperial examinations required for entry into the Chinese bureaucracy. Nevertheless, he was a highly literate scholar and an astute observer of his times. He wrote poetry throughout his life, undeterred by his personal circumstances.
   
Although initially he was little-known to other writers, after his death, his works came to be hugely influential in the literary cultures of both China and Japan. Of his poetic writing, nearly fifteen hundred poems have been preserved over the ages. He has been called the “Poet-Historian” and the “Poet-Sage” by Chinese critics. The range and quality of his work has been compared to the greatest poets of the western world, and some scholars have introduced him as the Chinese Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Wordsworth, Beranger, Hugo, or Baudelaire.

Sources

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Du_Fu, downloaded on 24 September 2021

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (1999). The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-66991-X (paperback).

Hung, William; (1952). Tu Fu: China’s Greatest Poet. Harvard University Press

Hawkes, David (2017)  A Little Primer of Tu Fu. Hong Kong and New York: Chinese University of Hong Kong and the New York Review of Books.  Note:  this is a revised edition.  The original publication of this book was in 1967, by the Oxford University Press. 

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Fanni is Radnóti's wife
Located near the Tang capital city of Chang’an, site of the modern city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, in central China.
Soldiers of that time commonly wore a white head cloth, similar to what is still worn by some peasants in China today.  The implication is that the conscripts were so young that they didn’t know how to wrap their head cloths, and needed help from elders.
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
The area of Guanxi, meaning “west of the passes”, refers to the area around the capital city of Chang’an.
This is an alternative name for a province in western China, now known as Qinghai, which literally means “blue sea”.  Kokonor Lake, located in Qinghai, is the largest saline lake in China.  
Oulart Hollow was the site of a famous victory of the Irish rebels over British troops, which took place on May 27, 1798. The rebels killed nearly all the British attackers in this battle. (Source: Maxwell, W. H. History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798. H. H. Bohn, London 1854, pp 92-93, at archive.org)
The phrase "United Men" is elaborated upon in the Notes section below.

Ghetto


An Italian word meaning “foundry.” It originally referred to a part of the city of Venice where the Jews of that city were forced to live; the area was called “the ghetto” because there was a foundry nearby. The term eventually came to refer to any part of a city in which a minority group is forced to live as a result of social, legal, or economic pressure. Because of the restrictions placed upon them, ghetto residents are often impoverished.

"You’re five nine, I am do-uble two"


A reference to the year 1959 and the year 2020.

"The Currency"


Meaning US dollars - this is drawing attention to the fact that Cuba is effectively dollarized.

"Sixty years with the dom-ino stuck"


This sentence is a reference to the Cold War notion that countries would turn Communist one after the other - like dominos. Cuba was the first domino, but it got stuck - no one else followed through into communism.

رحلنا


رحلنا, or "rahalna," means "we have left."

Habibi


Habibi means "my love."

Ra7eel


Ra7eel, or "raheel," means "departure."

3awda


3awda, or "awda," means "returning."

أهلاً


أهلاً, or "ahalan," means "welcome."

a5 ya baba


a5 ya baba, pronounced "akh ya baba," means "Oh my father."

golpe


Treece translates "golpe" as "beating", which is correct, however misses the secondary meaning of the word: "coup".

Carlos


The “Carlos” referred to in the poem is most likely Carlos Bolsonaro, a politician from Rio de Janeiro and the second son of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president. His and his father’s involvement in Marielle’s murder has been questioned and investigated.