Du Fu: The Defeat at Greenslope: A Lament (From Chinese)

The Defeat at Greenslope: A Lament
By Dù Fŭ
Translated by A.Z. Foreman 
Click to hear me recite this poem in English

(Winter of 765. Dù Fŭ writes as though he was present at the battle, although he was actually a captive behind enemy lines in Cháng'ān.)
At Greenslope by the East Gate the last
of our troops were camped together  
  By the black pits on Mount White we watered  
  our horses in bone-cold weather  
The blondhead brutes were advancing westward
pressing daily ahead 
  Their crackshot horsemen dared to rush    
  our men and shot them dead
The mountain in snow, the river in ice, 
the wind-bleak wildland groans
  That there black is smoldering beacon smoke   
  and the white's all soldiers' bones 
If only a message had made it through 
telling our boys to hold on
  Until next year and not be rash 
  they rushed and now they are gone 

Audio of me reading this poem in Chinese:
(Reconstructed Medieval Chang'anese Pronunciation)

 Commentary, Literalizations and Transcription

(The transcription used here is my own creation, meant to represent the dialect of 8th century Chang'an using a minimum of bizarre and unfamiliar symbols. It is based largely on the work of W.S. Coblin and Jerry Norman who concerned themselves with actual records of pronunciation, rather than the abstract theorizing of the rhymebook tradition. I really need to write up a post detailing how my system works, but for now I've just made a recording to illustrate what this kind of Chinese might have sounded like.)

悲青坂  Pi tshiengpẹ́n  Grieve Green-slope 

Grieving over Greenslope

In the winter of 765, government troops took a wrecking defeat from rebel forces east of Cháng'ān. Two days later, the other two divisions of the same army were defeated again nearby at an unknown location that is presumably the Greenslope of this poem.

我軍青坂 ngáa kün tshiengpẹ́n   I/we army/bivouac Green-slope 
在東門   dzài tongmon     be-at east gate
天寒飲馬 thian ghaan ìm mbạ́   heaven/weather/nature be-cold give-drink horse
太白窟   thàibẹk khot     Great-white pit/pool/grotto/cave

Our encamped soldiers' were at Greenslope (Qīngbǎn) right at the eastern gate. (At a time when) weather was cold, we watered our horses in the pits of mount Greatwhite (Tàibó). 
The actual Mount Greatwhite is too far west for this to be geographically accurate. Possibly it is merely the white mountains, or poetic license.   

黃頭奚兒 ghuangdǝu gheinji    Yellow-head Xi son
日向西   njit hiàng siei     daily advance west
數騎彎弓 srú gì uạn kung     Several horseman bend bow
敢馳突   káam dri-dot      dare gallop rush

Blondhead men and northland lads daily pressed on westward. Several of their horsemen with bended bows dared gallop and burst (through our lines, or into our bivouac, or out of nowhere)

L3: The rebels are portrayed as non-Han, in terms typically used for barbarian peoples. The leader of the rebels, General Ān Lùshān, was of Sogdian and Turkic descent. In some societies, such as in Western Europe and the Middle East, descriptive terms for ethnic others often highlight skin-color. But the analogous terms in Chinese tend to refer to hair color, eye-color, hirsuteness or nose-shape. The "blondheads" are Khitans. The 奚 ghei (modern pronunciation Xī) were a northern tribe in the area where Ān Lùshān had originally been stationed. 

L4: 突 dot "burst through, bust in" or "rush" has a strong sense of sudden ambush as used here. (This graph is also used to write the related word thot "suddenly, without warning.")    

山雪河冰 sran süat ghaa ping    Mountain snow river ice
野蕭瑟   iá siausrit      plain moan-bleakly
青是烽煙 tshieng zyì pfung'ian   Grue beacon smoke
白是骨   bẹk zyì kot      
White be bone

The mountain: snowy. The stream: iced. The (uncultivated) plain soughs windy-bleak. The grue there is beacon smoke, and the white is (men's) bones.

L5: Qiu's edition gives 晚 mván "evening" for 野 "uncultivated plain, waste" on the authority of Fan Huang.

L6: Use of tshieng "grue" (see here on what I mean by "grue") and 白 bẹk "white" repeats the color words from the place names of the first verse (Greenslope and Greatwhite Mountain.) In so doing Du Fu perhaps also draws the Táng listener's attention to the fact that 骨 khot"pits, grottoes" of Mount Greatwhite are pronounced nearly identically to 窟 kot "bones." As the colors mentioned in the first verses come to be reinterpreted in terms of war and death, so too the "pits of mount greatwhite" 太白窟 thàibẹk khot prefigure in retrospect the "enormous white bones" 大白骨 tài bẹkkot of the dead. A further point: in Chinese literature, 青 tshieng is the color of spring and growth, whereas 白 bẹk is the color of autumn and death. Use of 青 tshieng to refer to the color of smoke is not unheard-of, but I detect also the sense that the war-beacon smoke is still "fresh" since the beacons are still smouldering. Everything around is dead.

There are two possible variants of this line. One with 是 zyì "be" as the seventh character, and one with 人 njin "man". All the Song editions have 人. The only warrant for 是 lies in Qiu's edition of 1703, based on the fact that Fan Huang's anthology contained it. I think I just have to take his word for it. Looking at the two possibilities, my instant gut feeling was that 是 was original and that the version with 人 was a later "correction." The repeated use of 是 as a copula would have had a colloquial flavor. (The more classical sense of 是 is as a demonstrative "this"). While it is easy to imagine how the text might have been changed in transmission to 人, it is much harder for me to imagine how the reverse might have happened. 

焉得附書  antǝk bvù syü    How-can send letter
與我軍   iǘ ngáa kün     give our army
忍待明年 njín dài mengnian   Endure wait next year
莫倉卒   mbaak tshaangtshot  not rush

Would that a message could have been (or: might be) sent to our troops, telling them to bear the wait until next year, and not be rash in rushing.

L8: 倉卒 tshaangtshot means "be hasty, go off half-cocked, go harum scarum" and is spelled phonetically with loan-graphs from (etymologically) unrelated words. 倉  tshaang means "granary" on its own and is used here (as in many other disyllabic words that begin with tshaang-) purely to spell the sound of the first syllable of the word. The last graph 卒 is also a phonetic loan-speller for the morpheme -tshot. (When used as an independent unbound word, tshot "abruptly" would normally be spelled 猝.) But the fact that 卒 is normally used to spell the words tsot "group of people, soldiery, army" and tsut "finish, die" is hard to ignore in this context. Perhaps it was equally hard to ignore when this poem was read (though when chanted or recited this wouldn't necessarily come through.)   

The Original:





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