Tuesday, January 20, 2009

We dead lie unburied

War in Gaza, and (less publicised) war in Sri Lanka, war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, not to mention Afghanistan and Iraq. It's too soon to say whether and how these tragedies will be commemorated in song, but some of the earliest known ballads deal with the misery and suffering of war, offering a kind of counter-narrative to the patriotic sagas of kings and generals.

These examples are from the Han Dynasty period (202 BCE - 220 CE). Remarkably, the government of the time established a Bureau of Music (the Yueh-fu) which collected popular ballads and song. As a result lyrics from this time have survived for over 2000 years.

We fought South of the City Wall

We fought south of the city wall.
We died north of the ramparts.
In the wilderness we dead lie unburied, fodder for crows.
Tell the crows for us:
'We've always been brave men!
In the wilderness we dead clearly lie unburied,
So how can our rotting flesh flee from you?'
Waters deep, rushing, rushing,
Reeds and rushes, darkening, darkening.
Heroic horsemen fought and died fighting,
Flagging horses whinnied in panic.
Raftered houses we built,
And south, alas! and north;
If grain and millet aren't reaped, what will you eat, Lord?
We longed to be loyal vassals, but how can that be?
I remember you, good vassals,
Good vassals I truly remember:
In the dawn you went out to glory, At nightfall you did not return.

At Fifteen I Joined the Army

At fifteen I joined the army,
At eighty I first came home.
On the road I met a villager,
'At my home what kin are there?'
'Look over there- that's your home!'
Pine, cypress, burial mounds piled, piled high,
Hares going in through dog-holes,
Pheasants flying in through rafter tops;
The inner garden grown wild with corn,
Over the well wild mallow growing.
I pound grain to serve for a meal,
I pick mallow to serve for broth.
Once broth and meal are cooked
I'm at a loss to know whom to feed,
I leave by the gates, look east.
Tears fall and soak my clothes.

Source: Popular Songs and Ballads of Han China, Anne Birrell (University of Hawaii Press, 1988)

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