Chinese ladies (Ts’ai Yen) poem 200AD

Ts’ai Yen

Circa 200

FROM 18 VERSES SUNG

TO A TATAR REED WHISTLE

I

I was born in a time of peace,

But later the mandate of Heaven

Was withdrawn from the Han Dynasty.

Heaven was pitiless.

It sent down confusion and separation.

Earth was pitiless.

It brought me to birth in such a time.

War was everywhere. Every road was dangerous

Soldiers and civilians everywhere

Fleeing death and suffering.

Smoke and dust clouds obscured the land

Overrun by the ruthless Tatar bands.

Our people lost their will power and integrity,

I can never learn the ways of the barbarians.

I am daily subject to violence and insult.

I sing one stanza to my lute and a Tatar horn.

But no one knows my agony and grief.

II

A Tatar chief forced me to become his wife,

And took me far away to Heaven’s edge.

Ten thousand clouds and mountains

Bar my road home,

And whirlwinds of dust and sand

Blow for a thousand miles.

Men here are as savage as giant vipers,

And strut about in armour, snapping their bows.

As I sing the second stanza I almost break the

lutestrings.

Will broken, heart broken, I sing to myself.

VII

The sun sets. The wind moans.

The noise of the Tatar camp rises all around me.

The sorrow of my heart is beyond expression,

But who could I tell it to anyway?

Far across the desert plains,

The beacon fires of the Tatar garrisons

Gleam for ten thousand miles.

It is the custom here to kill the old and weak

And adore the young and vigorous.

They wander seeking new pasture,

And camp for a while behind earth walls.

Cattle and sheep cover the prairie,

Swarming like bees or ants.

When the grass and water are used up,

They mount their horses and drive on their cattle.

The seventh stanza sings of my wandering.

How I hate to live this way!

XI

I have no desire to live, but I am afraid of death.

I cannot kill my body, for my heart still has hope

That I can live long enough

To obtain one and only desire.

That someday I can see again

The mulberry and catalpa trees of home.

If i had consented to death,

My bones would have been buried long ago.

Days and months pile up in the Tatar camp.

My Tatar husband loved me. I bore him two sons.

I reared and nurtured them unashamed,

Sorry only that they grew up in a desert outpost.

The eleventh stanza -sorrow for my sons

At the first notes pierces my heart’s core.

XII

I never believed that in my broken life

The day would come when

Suddenly I could return home.

I embrace and caress my Tatar sons.

Tears wet our clothes.

An envoy from the Han Court

Has come to bring me back,

With four stallions that can run without stopping,

Who can measure the grief of my sons?

They thought I would live and die with them.

Now it is I who must depart.

Sorrow for my boys dims the sun for me.

If we had wings we could fly away together.

I cannot move my feet,

For each step is a step away from them.

My soul is overwhelmed.

As their figures vanish in the distance

Only my love remains.

The thirteenth stanza-

I pick the strings rapidly

But the melody is sad.

No one can know

The sorrow which tears my bowels.

XVII

The seventeenth stanza. My heart aches, my tears fall.

Mountain passes rise before us, the way is hard.

Before I missed my homeland

So much my heart was disordered.

Now I think again and again, over and over,

Of the sons 1 have lost.

The yellow sagebrush of the border,

The bare branches and dry leaves,

Desert battlefields, white bones

Scarred with swords and arrows,

Wind, frost, piercing cold,

Cold springs and summers

Men and horses hungry and exhausted, worn out-

I will never know them again

Once I have entered Chang An.

I try to strangle my sobs

But my tears stream down my face.

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