Sunday, March 22, 2009

Classical Chinese Anti-War Poetry


Bloomfield Bridge


The sixth anniversary of the beginning of the war with Iraq has passed relatively quietly. It's ho-hum in the States, where the absence of a military draft assures a lack of significant engagement by the general populace (read: us) because we are collectively too busy trying to insert our heads still further up our asses (read: Facebook, Twitter, blogs).

One of the many ways I walk to work is a over a large, beautiful bridge that runs from the Bloomfield neighborhood ("Little Italy") to the Hill and Oakland areas of the city. For many years I've had the opportunity to pass over graffiti right on the walkway that sums it all up:


----------------------------NO WAR
--------------------------BUT CLASS
------------------------------WAR


It's funny when you walk past something everyday and you read it and you think about it and it begins to sink in and it plants a tiny seed that just needs a little water and a little light.

This little seed has gotten plenty of light and water over the years and I think I've begun to see its very far ranging implications. Race is something that has spent a lot of time in the foremost part of many peoples minds over the years here in America.

It's about time class was next.

Which is all the long way round to revisiting the collection I Hear My Gate Slam: Chinese Poets Meeting and Parting, selected and translated by Taylor Stoehr. Why would I ever be thinking about class and war and class war and America on this 6th anniversary of the Iraq conflict while reading a collection of classical Chinese poetry?

One of the sections of this book, generally themed on meeting and parting, is called "Woe to Soldiers." To depoliticize the statements above about our current situation, I'm simply going to allow the poets to speak for themselves, addressing the issue at hand. First up is the 9th century poet, Wei Chuang:



Frontier Soil
Has there ever been a time without war,
----------an emperor without armies?

Soldiers have but one thing on their minds,
----------the lookout for peace.

At the frontier they say the soil now
----------is more bones than earth,

poor farmers dragged from their fields
----------and marched off to death.
Wei Chuang




Next, 8th century poet, Li Po (Li Bai):




Fighting South of the Wall

Last year we fought were the Sang-kan flows,
this year it was Onion River Road.

We've washed our swords in the Eastern Sea,
grazed our horses on T'ien Shan's snowy side.

A thousand miles are not enough for this war,
our armies grow old in their armor.

Husbandman of slaughter, the Huns
have sown the yellow desert with our bones.

Long ago the Ch'in built the Great Wall,
now it's the Han that light the signal beacon.

All night long the flames flicker,
year in year out, the war goes on.

Bright swords flash, brave men fall and die,
riderless horses whinny at the sky.

Kites and crows pluck out the guts,
hand them high on the withered trees.

Soldiers smear their blood on the dry grass
while generals map the next campaign.

Wise men know winning a war
is no better than losing one.
Li Po


Here is Yüan Chen (779-831), lamenting the plight of the land and the farmer:



The Farmer
His water buffalo bellows a complaint.
Soil baked hard and cracked like a broken plate,
the clods explode under its hooves.

Plowing his field for the Emperor,
sixty years he's watched the wagons rolling off
to feed the soldiers God knows where!

Then one day government troops come
to slaughter the buffalo and take away his cart.
They leave him two buffalo horns.

He hammers the ploughshare into a spade,
while his wife hauls his sister threshes
for without grain for taxes he must sell the house.

We pray for victory. Though the farmer will die
he has an heir, and the buffalo a calf.
Supplies for the army must never run short!
Yüan Chen


There are many, many more fine poems in this collection, some on war, most on friendship, loss, and love. I've returned the library copy and purchased my own. Having read it twice through and dipped in many more times, I know I will be returning to it again and again.

I can only hope that, over the years, it will sink in as well as the lesson gleaned going back and forth to work.



The Summer Palace

In the desolate summer palace
-----------the peonies are still red
and white-haired palace ladies say what they please
-----------about the palace dead.
Yüan Chen



best,
Don

4 comments:

Greg Schwartz said...

nice poems! especially that first one. and how true about class war.

John Korn said...

Great poems. Thanks for posting. Loved that Li Po.

Ed Baker said...

dirt-floor hut
in this mountain

emptiness-room
just so

what does blind girl
see?

one kiss, and
I will tell.


I am thinking, also, of a book... it is "over there"
however

I can't now get to it
as

I am drinking another Buddha-beer.


what dis Wang Wei frequently say?

"a little wine
makes wise men
of us all"

ed markowski said...

don,
great post.
got a few workingman's poems in my pocket.
ed
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

factory
entrance

moths
spin

'round
&
'round

a
caged

lightbulb

**********************************

fresh
from

a
dream

of
sinking

in
quicksand

i
enter

the
factory

***********************************

contract
concessions

the
press
operator's

seven
fingers

$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

charity ball
limousines long enough to live in

$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

Motown

where
easy
street
ends

an
abandoned
auto
plant

***********************************

first
day
of
school

we
wave
to
our

fathers
&
grandfathers

on
the
picket
line

**********************************

withering
wind

dad's
picket
sign

never
wavers

***********************************

christmas
eve

dad
leaves
behind

a
trail
of

smelting
soot

***********************************

christmas
morning

dad's
workboots

buried
in

giftwrap

***********************************

mahogany casket dad's blue collar

**********************************