06 October 2016

杜甫 Du Fu: 八陣圖 The Eightfold Battle Formation

Today, I am posting my rendition of a little poem by Du Fu on the achievements and regrets of Zhuge 諸葛 Liang 亮 who should be no stranger to those of you familiar with Chinese history.  My notes may help a bit, at least insofar as the Battle Formation is concerned. Postscript (7 October 2016):  Thanks to Ray Heaton, I can now give you a wiki link to an alternative interpretation of the Battle Formation as a defensive construct (kind of fortress?) translated as "Stone Sentinel Maze" and another link to Chapter 84 of the Luo Guanzhong historical novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" translated by C.H. Brewitt-Taylor.

The big picture, Shu should have allied with Wu to counter Wei, the strongest of the three.  The King of Shu Liu Bei decided, probably against Zhuge's advice, to attack Wu, but failed, leading to the ultimate demise of Shu.

No more history.  Please sit back and enjoy the poem.

Du Fu (712-770): The Eightfold Battle Formation

1  Of all, in all Three Kingdoms, his feats, the greatest;
2  His Eightfold Battle Formation, his fame, thus, spread.
3  The river churns but turns not the stone cairns he laid;
4  Shu’s failed move to annex Wu----his lasting regret.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)      譯者: 黄宏發
4th September 2013 (revised 9.9.13; 11.9.13; 12.9.16; 27.9.16)
Translated from the original - 杜甫八陣圖

1  功蓋三分國
2  名成八陣圖
3  江流石不轉
4  遺恨失吞吳


*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  This English rendition is in pentameter (5 feet or beats) while the original is in 5-character lines.  The rhyme scheme, as in the original, is XAXA with a less than perfect rhyme of “spread (2) - regret (4)”.

*Title and line 2:  means battle formation, and 八陣 should, in my view, be understood as one battle formation with the number 8 as the key formation concept, hence, capable of, at least, up to (8 by 8) 64 variations.  I have, therefore, translated it as “Eightfold Battle Formation” rather than “Eight Battle Formations” or “Eight-sided/-faced/Octagonal Battle Formation”.  The term 八陣 was first referred to without details in 孫臏兵法 “Sun Bin’s Art of War” by 孫臏 (the Master Sun 孫子 of the 4th century BCE), probably a descendant of 孫武 “Sun Wu” (the Master Sun 孫子 of the 6th century).  It is believed that this Battle Formation was first fleshed out by 諸葛亮 Zhuge Liang (181-214), the prime minister of the Kingdom of Shu (or 蜀漢 Shu Han) in the period of the Three Kingdoms 三國時代 (220-280), the other 2 Kingdoms being Wei (to Shu’s north) and Wu (to Shu’s east).  I have omitted translating the word (plan/diagram) which is covered by implication by the word “Formation”.

*Line 1:  I have decided to translate 三分國 as “all Three Kingdoms”, omitting the idea of (divide/divided) which idea is implied though not emphasized.  I could have used “trisected” for 三分, but this would dictate that the entity (kingdom/state, empire/country) must be translated in the singular, and neither “kingdom/state trisected” nor “empire/country trisected” is considered superior.

*Line 3:  (pebbles, stones, rocks, boulders) is translated as “stone cairns” with “cairns” added so as to make it clear that the word refers not to any stone in the river or on the river bank, but to stones laid by Zhuge Liang on the river bank to form an 8 by 8 matrix of 64 “cairns”, [相去二丈] spaced  2 ‘zhang’ or 6.66 metres apart, [各高五尺] each measuring 5 ‘chi’ or 1.66 metres high, and [廣十圍] 10 ‘wei’ (2 ‘wei’ = 1 ‘chi’) or 1.66 metres wide.  I am inclined to take the matrix to be a training ground rather than a fortress.

*Line 4:  For 失吞吳,  I had considered “ill move to annex Wu” but have decided for the plainer “failed move to annex Wu”, and for 遺恨, his lasting regret.  Although I am inclined to blame the King Liu Bei 劉備 rather than Zhuge Liang, I hope I have succeeded in retaining all the ambiguities of the original by opening the line with the added word “Shu’s”


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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