A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems/The Old Man with the Broken Arm
[A Satire on Militarism]
At Hsin-fēng an old man — four-score and eight;
The hair on his head and the hair of his eyebrows — white as the new snow.
Leaning on the shoulders of his great-grandchildren, he walks in front of the Inn;
With his left arm he leans on their shoulders; his right arm is broken.
I asked the old man how many years had passed since he broke his arm;
I also asked the cause of the injury, how and why it happened?
The old man said he was born and reared in the District of Hsin-fēng;
At the time of his birth — a wise reign; no wars or discords.
"Often I listened in the Pear-Tree Garden to the sound of flute and song;
Naught I knew of banner and lance; nothing of arrow or bow.
Then came the wars of T'ien-pao and the great levy of men;
Of three men in each house,— one man was taken.
And those to whom the lot fell, where were they taken to?
Five months' journey, a thousand miles — away to Yün-nan.
We heard it said that in Yün-nan there flows the Lu River;
As the flowers fall from the pepper-trees, poisonous vapours rise.
When the great army waded across, the water seethed like a cauldron;
When barely ten had entered the water, two or three were dead.
To the north of my village, to the south of my village the sound of weeping and wailing,
Children parting from fathers and mothers; husbands parting from wives.
Everyone says that in expeditions against the Min tribes
Of a million men who are sent out, not one returns.
I, that am old, was then twenty-four;
My name and fore-name were written down in the rolls of the Board of War.
In the depth of the night not daring to let any one know
I secretly took a huge stone and dashed it against my arm.
For drawing the bow and waving the banner now wholly unfit;
I knew henceforward I should not be sent to fight in Yün-nan.
Bones broken and sinews wounded could not fail to hurt;
I was ready enough to bear pain, if only I got back home.
My arm — broken ever since; it was sixty years ago.
One limb, although destroyed,— whole body safe!
But even now on winter nights when the wind and rain blow
From evening on till day's dawn I cannot sleep for pain.
Not sleeping for pain
Is a small thing to bear,
Compared with the joy of being alive when all the rest are dead.
For otherwise, years ago, at the ford of Lu River
My body would have died and my soul hovered by the bones that no one gathered.
A ghost, I'd have wandered in Yün-nan, always looking for home.
Over the graves of ten thousand soldiers, mournfully hovering."
So the old man spoke,
And I bid you listen to his words
Have you not heard
That the Prime Minister of K'ai-yüan, Sung K'ai-fu,
Did not reward frontier exploits, lest a spirit of aggression should prevail?
And have you not heard
That the Prime Minster of T'ien-Pao, Yang Kuo-chung
Desiring to win imperial favour, started a frontier war?
But long before he could win the war, people had lost their temper;
Ask the man with the broken arm in the village of Hsin-fēng!
- A. D. 742–755.
- Cousin of the notorious mistress of Ming-huang, Yang Kuei-fei.