Du Fu

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The Chariots Go Forth to War 


The Fireflies

The Parrot




Du Fu (about712-770) was born in China and raised as a Confucian, but failed to gain the government post he sought. He subsequently traveled throughout China, observing the conditions of the people and commenting on his impressions in poems. He was a friend of Li Po, and the Confucianism in his poetry sometimes complements the Taoism in Li Po’s. His conviviality also complemented that of Li Po.


Du Fu was an outspoken critic of the bloodshed in border wars and in the rebellions that often followed them. The poem below on the pressing of peasantry into military service, and the one that follows it, illustrate his opposition to war. The poem on fireflies shows him reflecting on his own mortality, while the poem on the parrot can be seen as a protest against the way beauty is trapped and imprisoned.


The Chariots Go Forth to War


The chariots go forth to war,

Rumbling, roaring as they go;

The horses neigh and whinny loud,

Tugging at the bit.

The dust swirls up in great dense clouds,

And hides the Han Yang bridge.

In serried ranks the archers march,

A bow and quiver at each waist;

Fathers, mothers, children, wives

All crowd around to say farewell.

Pulling at clothes and stamping feet,

They force the soldiers' ranks apart,

And all the while their sobs and cries

Reach to the skies above.


"Where do you go to-day ?" a passer-by

Calls to the marching men.

A grizzled old veteran answers him,

Halting his swinging stride:

"At fifteen I was sent to the north

To guard the river against the Hun;

At forty I was sent to camp,

To farm in the west, far, far from home.

When I left, my hair was long and black;

When I came home, it was white and thin.

Today they send me again to the wars,

Back to the north frontier,

By whose gray towers our blood has flowed

In a red tide, like the sea--

And will flow again, for Wu Huang Ti

Is resolved to rule the world.


"Have you not heard how in far Shantung

Two hundred districts lie

With a thousand towns and ten thousand homes

Deserted, neglected, weed-grown?

Husbands fighting or dead, wives drag the plow,

And the grain grows wild in the fields.

The soldiers recruited in Shansi towns

Still fight; but, with spirit gone,

Like chickens and dogs they are driven about,

And have not the heart to complain."


"I am greatly honored by your speech with me.

Dare I speak of my hatreds and grief ?

All this long winter, conscription goes on

Through the whole country, from the east to the west,

And taxes grow heavy. But how can we pay,

Who have nothing to give from our land ?

A son is a curse at a time like this,

And daughters more welcome far;

For, when daughters grow up, they can marry, at least,

And go to live on a neighbor's land.

But our sons? We bury them after the fight,

And they rot where the grass grows long.


"Have you not seen at far Ching Hai,

By the waters of Kokonor,

How the heaped skulls and bones of slaughtered men

Lie bleaching in the sun?

Their ancient ghosts hear our own ghosts weep,

And cry and lament in turn;

The heavens grow dark with great storm-clouds,

And the specters wail in the rain."





Out of the northeast

A white horse galloped,

Aquiver with fear,

And pierced was his empty saddle

By two long, deadly arrows.

What of his rider now,

And where the vain courage

That spurred him to combat—

And to death?

At midnight

Came the command

To give battle to the foe;

But for him it was a command to die!

Ah, many a home this day

In vain

Mourns for its fallen son,

And a wailing that rises to Heaven

Goes forth,

And bitter tears flow

Like the icy rains

Of winter!



The Fireflies


At Wu Shan, of an autumn night,

The fireflies come flitting

Through the curtains

Into my room,

And flutter on my garments.

So warm they seem

That my lute and book

Are chill to my touch

In the dark.

They settle on the walls and eaves,

And my room is agleam as if with stars.

They circle round the courtyard,

And, in clusters,

Cling to the old stone well-curb.

They enter the flowers

And make of each a tiny, glowing jewel.

I stand, an old, white-haired man,

By the broad Yang Tze,

And watch you, little fireflies,

And wonder if, when next year comes,

I shall be here to greet you.



The Parrot


The parrot sits

Upon his perch,

Wrapped in gloomy thought,

And dreams

Of his distant home.

His wings of brightest blue

Are clipped;

From his red beak

Come words of wisdom.

Will they never, never

Unlatch his cage,

And set him free once more?

Impatient, in anger,

He claws and tears at his perch,

To which he has clung

So long.

Will the world of men

Not pity him,

And the freedom he has lost?

Of what use to him in prison

Is his coat of wondrous hue?


Adapted from The Hundred Names: A Short Introduction to the Study of Chinese Poetry with Illustrative Translations by Henry H. Hart. University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 1933. Copyright © 1933 The Regents of the University of California.