Posted: 27 Sep 2016 07:33 AM PDT
This poem was written in 756 or shortly thereafter during the An Lushan rebellion. Du Fu was trapped in Chang'an after it had fallen to the rebels. An Lushan had ordered that all Tang royalty be executed. His killing-squads were sweeping the city, hunting down members of the House of Tang, and executing them on sight.
The "stanzaic" divisions in this poem correspond to a formal division in the original. The Chinese is rhymed AAbAcAdA...etc as one might expect. However, each section separated by an empty line in my translation begins with another AA internally rhymed couplet in the original. These seem to correspond to thematic or dramatized shifts in the original and I felt it important to mark them as such.
The term used for "prince" here çŽ‹å« (recurring four times throughout the poem) calls to mind the theme, quite old in Chinese poetry, of the "wandering prince." The "wandering prince" is often a man roaming somewhere in the wilderness, being urged by the poem's speaker to return home where he belongs while his wife is yet young. There may also be an echo of a specific wandering prince, Han Xin, who though a grandson of the king of Han, was nonetheless a commoner early in life, and was - so the story goes - saved from starvation by an old woman who saw him fishing by the Huai River and fed him for months out of pity. In Du Fu's poem, both of these tropes are inverted. Here the prince is forced into vagabondage, and dare not return home if he wishes to survive, and is moreover denied the succor that the old woman is reported to have extended to Han Xin.
Lament For a Prince Errant
By Du Fu
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Black in the air the whitehood crows1ã€€from Chang'an's walls took flight
ã€€ã€€And loud above the Yanqiu Gateã€€called â€” cawed into the night
Then wheeled toward homes of men to peckã€€on mansion roofs in hordes
ã€€ã€€Warning high ministers belowã€€to flee the rebel2 swords
The gold whips snapped â€” horse upon horseã€€galloped till it fell dead
ã€€ã€€Not all the Emperor's flesh and bloodã€€could join him as he fled
Blue coral and a precious crestã€€of jade about his waist
ã€€ã€€Off by the road I spot a prince ã€€pathetic, teary-faced
I ask his name â€” he will not say ã€€He dare not be so brave
ã€€ã€€But begs me in his misery ã€€to take him as a slave
He has escaped the killing-squadsã€€hiding in bush and thorn
ã€€ã€€For a hundred days leaving his fleshã€€no shred of skin untorn
But the bridged nose of Gaozu's line3ã€€bespeaks the royal clan
ã€€ã€€The Dragon's seed is not the seedã€€of ordinary man â€”
"Wild dogs now stalk the city streetsã€€the Dragon roams the wild
ã€€ã€€Preserve Your precious self Your Highnessã€€now that the court's exiled
I dare not speak with You too longã€€here in plain roadside view
ã€€ã€€But for Your royal sake will pauseã€€and spare a word or two
A spring wind from the east last night ã€€blew blood's stench through the airã€€ã€€
ã€€ã€€And camels from the east filed inã€€to load loot everywhere
The Northland troops of Geshu Hanã€€good men well-honed in war
ã€€ã€€So brave and sharp they were back then â€” such idiots they now are4
The Son of Heaven has abdicatedã€€or so the rumors run
ã€€ã€€And in the north His Royal Virtueã€€has tamed the southern Khan5
They've gashed their faces â€” vowed to blotã€€all this dishonor out
ã€€ã€€But careful whom you tell this toã€€with all these spies about6ã€€
Alas indeed poor prince â€” take care ã€€pray the auspicious power
ã€€ã€€Of the Imperial Tombs7 remainã€€your guardian every hour"
1- White-headed crows were an ominous sign. The direct inspiration here is that of Hou Jing, who usurped the power of the Liang emperors for a brief while. White-headed crows were said to have appeared over the southern gate of the Palace City at the time of takeover.
2- "Rebel" here translates èƒ¡, a word often rendered as "barbarian" or "Tartar" but which in fact could serve during the Tang as a generic term for any ethnic group other than Han Chinese. An Lushan was of mixed Turkic and Sogdian descent.
3- The high-bridged nose was characteristic of the Han imperial house, specifically that of its founder Gaozu. c.f.
4- Geshu Han's troops from Shuofang and elsewhere in the northern frontier commands, though they had done well against Tibet, were badly defeated at the Tong pass against An Lushan due to Geshu Han being forced through intrigue into some tactically unsound maneuvers.
5- Emperor Xuanzong had abdicated in favor of Suzong who had made an alliance with the Uighur Khan.
6- The reference to "gashing faces" is a call-back to the gestural vow of vengeance made by the Xiongnu.
7- The five imperial Tombs of the Tang, whose continued potency would augur the restoration of Tang rule.
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