Du Fu: Lament For a Prince Errant (From Chinese)

This poem was written in 756 or shortly thereafter during the An Lushan rebellion. Du Fu was trapped behind enemy lines in Chang'an after it had fallen to the rebels. An Lushan had ordered that all Tang royalty be executed. His killing-squads were sweeping the city, hunting down members of the House of Tang, and executing them on sight.

The "stanzaic" divisions in this poem correspond to a formal division in the original. The Chinese is rhymed AAbAcAdA...etc as one might expect. However, each section separated by an empty line in my translation begins with another AA internally rhymed couplet in the original. These seem to correspond to thematic or dramatized shifts in the original and I felt it important to mark them as such.

The term used for "prince" here 王孫 (recurring four times throughout the poem) calls to mind the theme, quite old in Chinese poetry, of the "wandering prince." The "wandering prince" is often a man roaming somewhere in the wilderness, being urged by the poem's speaker to return home where he belongs while his wife is yet young. There may also be an echo of a specific wandering prince, Han Xin, who though a grandson of the king of Han, was nonetheless a commoner early in life, and was - so the story goes - saved from starvation by an old woman who saw him fishing by the Huai River and fed him for months out of pity. In Du Fu's poem, both of these tropes are inverted. Here the prince is forced into vagabondage, and dare not return home if he wishes to survive, and is moreover denied the succor that the old woman is reported to have extended to Han Xin.  

Lament For a Prince Errant
By Du Fu
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Black in the air the white-cowled crows1 from Chang'an's walls took flight
  And cawed above the Yanqiu Gate calling into the night
Then wheeled toward homes of men to peck on mansion roofs in hordes
  Warning high ministers below to flee the rebel2 swords
The gold whips snapped as horse upon horse galloped till it fell dead
  Not all the Emperor's flesh and blood could join him as he fled

With blue coral and a precious crest of jade about his waist
  Off by the road I spot a prince  with tears across his face
I ask his name and he will not say  He dare not be so brave
  But begs me in his misery  to take him as a slave 
He has escaped the killing-squads hiding in bush and thorn
  For a hundred days leaving his flesh not a shred of skin untorn 
But the bridged nose of Gaozu's line3 betrays the royal clan  
  The Dragon's seed is not the seed of ordinary man — 
"Jackals are stalking Chang'an's streets our Dragon's in the wild
  Preserve Your precious self Your Highness now that the court's exiled 

I dare not speak with You too long here in plain roadside view
  But for the sake of royal blood I'll spare a word with you
A spring wind from the east last night  blew blood's stench through the air   
  And camels from the east filed in to load loot everywhere
The Northland troops of Geshu Han good men well-honed in war
  So brave and sharp they used to be — so foolish they now are4
The Son of Heaven has abdicated or so the rumors run
  And in the north His Royal Virtue has tamed the southern Khan5
They've gashed their faces — vowed to blot all this dishonor out 
  But careful whom you tell this to with all these spies about6 

Goodbye poor prince, poor prince indeed  take care of yourself and pray
  The living force of the Five Tombs7 protect you night and day"


1- White-headed crows were an ominous sign. The direct inspiration here is that of Hou Jing, who usurped the power of the Liang emperors for a brief while. White-headed crows were said to have appeared over the southern gate of the Palace City at the time of takeover.

2- "Rebel" here translates 胡, a word often rendered as "barbarian" or "Tartar" but which in fact could serve during the Tang as a generic term for any ethnic group other than Han Chinese. An Lushan was of mixed Turkic and Sogdian descent. 

3- The high-bridged nose was characteristic of the Han imperial house, specifically that of its founder Gaozu. c.f. 

4- Geshu Han's troops from Shuofang and elsewhere in the northern frontier commands, though they had done well against Tibet, were badly defeated at the Tong pass against An Lushan due to Geshu Han being forced through intrigue into some tactically unsound maneuvers.

5- Emperor Xuanzong had abdicated in favor of Suzong who had made an alliance with the Uighur Khan.

6- The reference to "gashing faces" is a call-back to the gestural vow of vengeance made by the Xiongnu.

7- The five imperial Tombs of the Tang, whose continued potency would augur the restoration of Tang rule.

The Original:
(Medieval Chinese transcribed using a slight modification of David Branner's system)

哀王孫       ei1a ghwang3 swen1 

杜甫        duó1a puó3c  

長安城頭頭白烏,  drang3 an1 dzyeing3b dou1 dou1 beik2a uo1
夜飛延秋門上呼。  3 pi3a yan3b tshou3b men1 dzyàng3 huo1
又向人家啄大屋,  ghòu3b syàng3 nyen3b ka2 trok2 dè1 uk1b
屋底達官走避胡。  uk1b téi4 dat1 kwan1 tsóu1 bì3by ghuo1
金鞭斷折九馬死,  kem3x pan3by twàn1 tsyat3b kóu3b má2 sí3c
骨肉不得同馳驅。  kwet1 nyuk3b póu3b tek1 dung1b dri3b khuo3c
腰下寶玦青珊瑚,  au3y ghà2 páu1 kwat4 tsheing4 san1 ghuo1
可憐王孫泣路隅。  khé1 lan4 ghwang3 swen1 khep3x luò1 nguo3c
問之不肯道姓名,  mèn3a tsyi3d póu3b khéng1 dáu1 sèing3b meing3b
但道困苦乞為奴。  dàn1 dáu1 khwèn1 khuó1 khet3a ghwi3bx nuo1
已經百日竄荊棘,  3d keing4 peik2a nyet3b tshwàn1 keing3a kek3
身上無有完肌膚。  syen3b dzyàng3 muo3c ghóu3b ghwan1 ki3cx puo3c
高帝子孫盡隆準,  kau1 tèi4 tsí3d swen1 dzèn3b lung3b tsywén3b
龍種自與常人殊。  lung3c tsyúng3c dzì3c yuó3b dzyang3 nyen3b dzyuo3c
豺狼在邑龍在野,  dzrei2b lang1 dzèi1a ep3x lung3c dzèi1a yá3
王孫善保千金軀。  ghwang3 swen1 dzyán3b páu1 tshan4 kem3x khuo3c
不敢長語臨交衢,  póu3b kám1b drang3 nguó3b lem3 kau2 guo3c
且為王孫立斯須。  tshá3 ghwì3bx ghwang3 swen1 lep3 si3b suo3c
昨夜東風吹血腥,  dzak1 yà3 tung1b pung3b tshywi3b hwat4 seing4
東來橐駝滿舊都。  tung1b lei1a thak1 de1 mán1 gòu3b tuo1
朔方健兒好身手,  srok2 pang3 gàn3a nyi3b háu1 syen3b syòu3b
昔何勇銳今何愚。  seik3b ghe1 yúng3c dwèi1b kem3x ghe1 nguo3c
竊聞天子已傳位,  tshat4 men3a than4 tsí3d yí3d drwan3b ghwì3cx
聖德北服南單于。  syèing3b tek1 pek1 buk3b nam1a dzyan3b ghuo3c
花門剺面請雪恥,  hwa2 men1 li3d màn3by tshéing3b swat3b thrí3d
慎勿出口他人狙。  dzyèn3b met3a tshywet3b khóu1 the1 nyen3b tshuo3b
哀哉王孫慎勿疏,  ei1a tsei1a ghwang3 swen1 dzyèn3b met3a sruo3b
五陵佳氣無時無。  nguó1 leng3 kei2a khì3a muo3c dzyi3d muo3c

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