Ballad of the War Wagons

Poetry about the experience of warfare has a long history. The following poem from medieval China is one such example - and one that gives us a glimpse into the often sad fate of those who had to do the fighting.

Ballad of the War Wagons was written in the eighth century by Du Fu. He was a scholar, politician, and military official, but today he is mostly known as one of China’s greatest poets. His works included several that dealt with military tactics, but in the following verses Du Fu tells the story of warfare through the lowly peasants who had to fight the battles:

Carts grumble and rattle
and horses whinny and neigh
as the conscripts pass, bows and quivers strapped to their waists.
Parents, wives, and children run to see them off
till dust clouds drown the bridge south of Changan.
Tugging at soldiers’ clothes, they wait and throw themselves in the way,
their cries rising into the clouds.

On the roadside a passerby asks what’s happening.
The soldiers only say, “We’re called up often,
some went north at fifteen to guard the Yellow River
and still at forty are farming frontier settlements out West.
We left so young the village chief wrapped our turbans for us;
we came back white haired but now we’re off to fortify the frontier!
The men there have she a salt ocean of blood,
but the warlike emperor still lusts for empire.

My lord, haven’t you heard how in two hundred districts of China’s mountains
countless villages grow just weeds and thorns?
Even if a stout wife tries to plow and hoe,
east to west the crops grow wild over broken terraces.
The Qin soldiers are fierce warriors,
but they are driven forth to battle like chickens or dogs.

You, sir, can ask questions
but conscripts don’t dare complain.
This winter, for example,
they haven’t released the Guanxi troops
but officials still press for land tax.
Land taxes! How are we to pay for that?
The truth is it’s a sour thing to have sons.
Better to have a daughter -
at least she can marry neighbour.
Our sons like unburied in the grass.
My lord, have you seen the Blue Sea’s shore
where the old white bones lie ungathered?
New ghosts keen and old ghosts weep
jiu, jiu, like twittering birds as rain sifts from thee bleak sky.”

Ballad of the War Wagons begins with a scene that would be familiar to even modern readers - men leaving their homes to join the army, while their families feel sadness and apprehension about their departure. However, the scene then shifts to someone asking the soldiers where they are going, and the men respond by complaining that they have to go the war, even though they see it as pointless. The men explain that these military campaigns may expand the empire’s borders, but it leaves their villages unable to grow crops, and often leaving the soldiers dead or scarred for the rest of their lives.

We would call this an anti-war poem, and it is somewhat surprising that it comes from a man who served as a military official. But it may have been that Du Fu was a keen observer of the costs of war, for during his time wars within and along the borders of China would lead to famine and disease, and much suffering.

This translation of Ballad of the War Wagons can be found in The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, edited by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping.

Top Image: Horse and rider, from early 8th century China. Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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