Gems of Chinese Literature/Li Hua-On an old Battle-field

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VAST, vast,―a limitless extent of flat sand, without a human being in sight; girdled by a stream and dotted with hills; where in the dismal twilight the wind moans at the setting sun. Shrubs gone: grass withered: all chill as the hoar-frost of early morn. The birds of the air fly past: the beasts of the field shun the spot; for it is, as I was informed by the keeper, the site of an old battle-field. “Many a time and oft,” said he, “has an army been overthrown on this spot; and the voices of the dead may frequently be heard weeping and wailing in the darkness of the night.”

Oh, sorrow! oh, ye Ch‘ins, ye Hans, ye dynasties now passed away! I have heard that when the Ch‘is and the Weis gathered at the frontier, and when the Chings and the Hans collected their levies, many were the weary leagues they trod, many were the years of privation and exposure they endured. Grazing their horses by day, fording the river by night, the endless earth beneath, the boundless sky above, they knew not the day of their return; their bodies all the time exposed to the pitiless steel, with many other unspeakable woes.

Again, since the Ch‘in and the Han dynasties, countless troubles have occurred within the boundaries of the empire, desolating the Middle Kingdom. No age has been free from these. In the olden days, barbarians and Chinese alike meekly followed their Imperial guide. But the place of right was usurped by might; the rude soldier cast aside the obligations of morality, and the rule of reason lost its sway.

Alas! methinks I see them now, the bitter wind enveloping them in dust, the Tartar warriors in ambuscade. Our general makes light of the foe. He would give battle upon the very threshold of his camp. Banners wave over the plain; the river closes-in the battle array. All is order, though hearts may beat. Discipline is everything: life is of no account.

And now the cruel spear does its work, the startled sand blinds the combatants locked fast in the death-struggle; while hill and vale and stream groan beneath the flash and crash of arms. By-and-by, the chill cold shades of night fall upon them, knee-deep in snow, beards stiff with ice. The hardy vulture seeks its nest: the strength of the war-horse is broken. Clothes are of no avail; hands frost-bitten, flesh cracked. Even nature lends her aid to the Tartars, contributing a deadly blast, the better to complete the work of slaughter begun. Ambulance waggons block the way: our men succumb to flank attacks. Their officers have surrendered: their general is dead. The river is choked with corpses to its topmost banks: the fosses of the Great Wall are swimming over with blood. All distinctions are obliterated in that heap of rotting bones…

Faintly and more faintly beats the drum. Strength exhausted, arrows spent, bow-strings snapped, swords shattered, the two armies fall upon one another in the supreme struggle for life or death. To yield is to become the barbarian's slave: to fight is to mingle our bones with the desert sand…

No sound of bird now breaks from the hushed hillside. All is still, save the wind whistling through the long night. Ghosts of the dead wander hither and thither in the gloom: spirits from the nether world collect under the dark clouds. The sun rises and shines coldly over the trampled grass, while the fading moon still twinkles upon the frost-flakes scattered around. What sight more horrible than this!

I have heard that Li Mu led the soldiers of Chao to victory over their Tartar foes, clearing the country for miles, and utterly routing the Huns. The Hans, on the other hand, exhausted in vain the resources of the empire. They had not the man, and their numbers availed them naught.

The Chows, too, drove back the barbarous hordes of the north; and having garrisoned the country, returned safely home. Then they offered thanks to the Gods, and gave themselves up to the universal enjoyment which peace alone can bring.

The Ch‘ins built the Great Wall, stretching far away to the sea. Yet the poison-breath of war decimated the people, and mile upon mile ran with their red blood.

The Hans beat down the Huns, and seized Yin-shan. But their corpses lay pillowed over the plain, and the gain was not equal to the loss.

O high Heaven! which of these but has father and mother, who bore them about in childhood, fearing only lest maturity should never come? Which of these but has brothers, dear to them as themselves? Which of these but has a wife, bound by the closest ties? They owe no thanks for life, for what have they done to deserve death? They may be alive or dead the family knows it not. And if one brings the news, they listen, half doubting, half believing, while the heart overflows with grief. Sleeping and waking, they seem to see the lost one's form. Sacrifices are made ready and libations poured, with tearful eyes strained towards the far horizon; heaven and earth, nay, the very trees and plants, all seeming to sympathise with their sorrow. And when, in response to prayers and libations, these wanderers return not, where shall their spirits find repose? Verily there shall be a famine over the land,[1] and the people be scattered abroad. Alas! such is life, and such it has ever been. What resource then is left but to keep within our frontier lines?[2]

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  1. In allusion to some words attributed to Lao Tzŭ.
  2. I doubt if the Peace Society, to whom this essay might well be dedicated, has ever published a more graphic description of the horrors of war.