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Recent translations

David Lunde

A Woman of Quality
Du Fu 

Matchless in breeding and beauty,
a fine lady has taken refuge
in this forsaken valley.
She is of good family, she says,
but her fortune has withered away;
now she lives as the grass and trees.
When the heartlands fell to the rebels
her brothers were put to death;
birth and position availed nothing–
she was not even allowed
to bring home their bones for burial.
The world turns quickly against
those who have had their day–
fortune is a lamp-flame
flickering in the wind.
Her husband is a fickle fellow
who has a lovely new woman.
Even the vetch-tree is more constant,
folding its leaves every dusk,
and mandarin ducks
always sleep with their mates.
But he has eyes only
for his new woman’s smile,
and his ears are deaf
to his first wife’s weeping.
High in the mountains
spring water is clear as truth,
but when it reaches the lowlands
it is muddied with rumor.
Her serving-maid returns
from selling her pearls;
she drags a creeper over
to cover holes in the roof.
The flowers the lady picks
are not for her hair,
and the handfuls of  cypress
are a bitter stay against hunger.
Her pretty blue sleeves
are too thin for the cold;
as evening falls
she leans on the tall bamboo.

This vivid depiction of an upper class woman rendered destitute by war and betrayal is touching, but Du’s tone is reportorial.

Ballad of the Army Carts
Du Fu

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
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.”

[759 C.E.]

NB: In Du Fu’s time, direct criticism of the Emperor or government policy was ill-advised.  This
poem, with its mention of vanished nations such as Han and Qin, purports to be about
ancient times, but any contemporary reader would recognize the parallels with the current
situation.

A powerful antiwar poem, but what makes it truly unusual is the sympathetic presentation of the plight of peasants conscripted for the army and for their families struggling to live without them, a subject which would not have been considered appropriate in poetry of the time.

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