02 September 2015

王昌齢 Wang Changling: 出塞 2首 其1 (1- 秦時明月...) To the Frontier, 1 of 2 (1- The same clear moon as in Qin times...)

Today, I am posting a poem which most would regard as a patriotic poem glorifying the Han (as an ethnic group) Chinese.  However, some would regard it as anti-war or, at least, desire for peace. What do you say?

Wang Changling (698 – 757): To the Frontier 1 of 2 (1- The same clear moon as in Qin times...)

1  The same clear moon as in Qin times, same passes as in Han;
2  Men came from thousands of miles, their return ne'er ever began.
3  If only that Flying General, of Longcheng fame, were here,
4  No hostile horses dare cross----the border of Mount Yinshan.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)   譯者: 黃宏發
19th July 2015
Translated from the original - 王昌齢: 出塞 2 其1 (1-  秦時明月...)

1  秦時明月漢時關
3  但使龍城飛將在


*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  This English rendition is in hexameter (6 beats or feet) while the original is in 7-chracter lines.  The rhyme scheme is AAXA as in the original.

*Line 1:  Qin and Han are 2 consecutive dynasties (221 – 206 BCE; 206 BCE – 220 CE).  These are ancient days even to those, the poet included, who lived in the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE).  Qin was the time when the Great Wall長城 was built or completed.  At the time, passes must have also been built.  I had, therefore, considered rendering the line as “A clear moon over the passes, as in the days of Qin and Han” which is what the line means.  I have, however, decided to follow the original formulation and separated Qin and Han, but with word “same” added twice to link the 2 dynasties so as to convey the idea that war had been going on for centuries ever since antiquity, hence, “The same clear moon as in Qin times, same passes as in Han”.

*Line 2:  萬里 “ten thousand ‘li’ (a Chinese unit of length)” is rendered as “thousands of miles” on the basis that one ‘li’ equals half a kilometer, 10 thousand ‘li’, 5 thousand kilometers or, very roughly, 3 thousand miles.  長征 is not interpreted as a “long march/expedition” as the poem is not about an expedition in offence, but reinforcements in defence, and soldiers would have been enlisted throughout the country, hence, my “Men came from”.  人未還 is rendered as “their return ne'er ever began” to rhyme with “Han” in line 1 and “Yinshan” in line 4.

*Line 3:  I have rendered 但使 simply as “If only … were here” and have taken 龍城飛將 to refer to Li Guang 李廣 and not to Wei Qing 衛青, both generals of the Han dynasty.  While the exact location and nature of 龍城 ”Longcheng” are matters yet to be settled, 飛將 ”flying general” unequivocally points to Li Guang who was in command in 右北平郡 “West Beiping Province” (in present day 河北 Hebei Province) which included Longcheng, and according to司馬遷 史記 (“Shi Ji” or “Historical Records” by Sima Qian), the Huns (Xiung Nu匈奴) referred to Li Guang as 漢之飛將軍 “Han’s flying general” and 避之數嵗,不敢入右北平 “avoided him for some years, not daring to enter West Beiping”.  龍城 is simply rendered as “of Longcheng fame”.

*Line 4:  refers generally to non-Han nationalities living in the north and west of China and is rendered here as “hostile” as, in this context, the Huns and the Hans were at war.  is literally translated as “horses”.  It is in both languages a synecdoche for 馬兵 or 騎乓 “horsemen” or “cavalry” and this meaning is further clarified by my translating as “hostile”.  I had considered “No … can cross” for 不教 but have decided for “No … dare cross”.  I have added the word “border” to make clear the nature of Mount Yinshan. 


Anne-Sophie said...

Hi !

This is amazing work.

Please feel free to check this link for Keith Holyoak new free ebook of beautiful translation of Li Bai.


Anne-Sophie said...


Ray Heaton said...

Burton Watson refers to Wang's poetry as expressing "...the kind of anger and spirit of protest that had moved the unknown authors of the original ballads [of Wang's traditional folk song poetic form]...to gain the ear of the authorities". Wang's war poetry, or perhaps more correctly, his frontier poetry, reflect the continual battles waged between the Tang and its neighbours, given weight in this poem by Wang reflecting that it's the same moon as during the Qin and the same passes as during the Han, hence cleverly indicating an almost perpetual state of war; perhaps the Tang soldiers are, like their Qin and Han brethren, destined to never return home - in Andrew's translation there is no distinction made between Tang soldiers and those from earlier times, simply "Men came from thousands of miles...", Andrew's "Men" could be from any period in history. And here, there are similarities to Wang Han's, Song of Liangzhou, where he asks, 古來徵戰幾人回, "since ancient times from each expedition, how many returned"?

Wang refers to ten thousand "li" in other poems too; in 從軍㣔, for example, we have "ten thousand miles of sadness" 萬里愁, Wang's means of expressing the almost hopeless prospect of return from so far away. And in Wang's war poem (referred to as number four of seven) we have the soldier's fear of never returning home, unless Kroraina is defeated. Therefore it could be that, as in this poem, Wang's repeated references to the soldiers being so far away with little prospect of return, is to evoke a profound melancholy.

Lines three and four are quite different to the previous two lines; possibly here Wang is challenging the competence of the military leadership by referring back to a general from ancient times, if only theTang had someone as able to deter the invading enemy, then the border would be intact.

Wang has then presented two different aspects of this war; that the soldiers prospect for return is slim and the incompetent leadership that has lead to war yet failed to resolve conflict. In my view, then, definitely an anti-war themed poem!

Anon said...

Hello Mr Wong, may I use your translation of this poem with credit and a link to your blog? I'm translating a story which quotes this poem and your translation is wonderful! I'm having trouble commenting as a WordPress user but my URL is theresanother(DOT)wordpress(DOT)com.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Dear Anon, I am honoured and I gladly give you permission to use my rendition of this poem with credit to me and a link to this post on my blog. I have read with interest your novel translations on your . Keep up with the good work! (I just don't catch what you mean by "I'm having trouble commenting as a WordPress user".) Best wishes, Andrew Wong.

Anon said...

Thank you so much, Mr Wong!! I'll let you know when the relevant chapter is published. ^_^
Oh, I was just trying to leave a comment using my WordPress account but it didn't work. Not to worry though, I can still leave a comment. :)