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The Old General 1

Wang, Wei   (700 A.D.-761 A.D.)

When he was fifteen or twenty,
He captured on foot a war horse of the Huns 2.
He shot and killed a tiger that had a white brow 3.
How could he concede to the young man with a yellow beard from Ye City 4?
One person has fought through a distance of a thousand miles.
His sword was used to defend against a million enemy troops.
The Han soldiers 5 advanced as fast as thunder and lightning.
The enemy cavalry at full gallop feared barbed wires.
Qing Wei 6 was never defeated because of Godís blessing.
Guang Li 7 fought repeatedly without honor due to bad luck.
After the old general was dismissed from the army, he aged quickly.
He idled his time away and his hair soon became gray.
In his prime, his flying arrow could penetrate a birdís eye 8.
Now he cannot move as nimbly as before
Because a tumor is growing on his left elbow 9.
He once sold ex-duke melons 10 along the roadside
And imitated Mr. Tao 11 by planting willow trees in front of his door.
Boundless ancient trees connected the deep alley.
His open window faced the cold, aloof, and deserted mountain.
He swore to order a shooting spring to gush out of Shu-le City 12.
He would not get drunk like Ying-chuan 13.
The enemy's battle formation at the foot of He-lan Mountain 14 was dense as clouds.
Urgent dispatches flew swiftly day and night.
An imperial commissioner recruited young soldiers in the Three River Regions 15.
The emperor sent a royal order five times to summon the old general.
The general polished his armor bright like snow
And brandished his treasure sword whose cold light shot to the stars.
He wishes he could obtain a Yan bow 16 to shoot the enemy commander
And feels ashamed to let the enemy chariots upset his emperor 17.
Do not underestimate the ability of the old Prefect of Yun-Zhong City 18.
He can still fight and win military honors.




1 This poem is about a retired general's desire to make a contribution to the country. It also describes the ruling class' mistreatment of talented people. Wang wishes that the government could give this old general another opportunity to make a contribution to the country. Wang's patriotism, which is expressed as treasuring talented people, has a deep social meaning.

2 General Guang Li of the Han dynasty was once wounded and captured during a war against the Huns. When he was being transported in custody, he found an opportunity to capture his enemy's war horse. Then he galloped south and returned to China.

3 Both General Guang Li of the Han dynasty and General Chu Zhou of the Jin dynasty shot and killed a ferocious tiger.

4 "The young man with a yellow beard from Ye City" refers to Zhang Cao, the second son of Cao Cao who was the prime minister at the end of the Han dynasty. The evil Cao Cao forced his emperor to do his bidding. Later Pei Cao, the eldest son of Cao Cao, usurped the throne. Zhang Cao was brave, resolute and steadfast. He mastered archery and horsemanship.

5 Because the majority of Chinese people are Han, it is clear that the phrase "The Han soldiers" refers to Chinese soldiers.

6 Qing Wei was a great general during the reign of Emperor Wu in the Han dynasty. Qing Wei was a younger brother of Queen Wei. It was Qing's nephew, General Qu-bing Huo, who was never defeated by the Huns. The poem is incorrect.

7 Guang Li was a great general of the Han dynasty. He was brave and skilful in fighting. Even the Huns praised him as the Flying General. However, he failed to realize his ambitions. One time, as Li attacked the Huns, the emperor thought that he was too old and unlucky to capture his enemy.

8 Shan Li's Interpretation of The Story of the Emperors and Kings says, "Yi and He Wu traveled together. He Wu let Yi shoot a sparrow's left eyes, but Yi's arrow hit its right eyes." Here the line says that when he was in his prime, the general always hit his target.

9 The chapter titled "Supreme Happiness" in Zhuang-zi says, "Presently a tumor grew on his left elbow."

10 During the Qin dynasty, Ping Shao was made the Duke of Dong-ling. After the Qin dynasty was destroyed, he planted melons to make a living. His melons tasted sweet. People called his melons "Dong-ling melons".

11 Qian Tao, a great pastoral poet of the Jin dynasty, wrote the essay "Mr. Five Willow Trees". It describes the life of a man whose name and native place are unknown. The man planted five willow trees beside his house. Consequently, later generations often called Qian Tao "Mr. Five Willow Trees".

12 Gong Di, a great general of the Eastern Han dynasty, led troops to fight against the Huns. When his troops were stationed at Shu-le City, the Huns cut off their water supply. General Di looked up at heaven and lamented, "I have heard that General Guang-li Li once thrust his sword into a mountain and a shooting spring gushed out. Now China has won God's favor. How can I sink into a desperate situation?" Then he prayed sincerely. Soon water flowed out. The Huns thought God helped General Di, so they withdrew at last.

13 Ying-chuan refers to Guan-fu, a general during the reign of King Jing in the Han dynasty. Ying-chuan was the general's hometown. He was upright, but often lost his temper when he got drunk. Later, he was framed by someone and his entire family was sentenced to death.

14 He-lan Mountain is in present day Ningxia Hui Autonomous Reign.

15 The Three River Regions were the region east of the Yellow River in present day Shanxi Province, the region south of the Yellow River in present day Henan Province, and the region north of the Yellow River in present day Henan province.

16 A Yan bow refers to a bow produced in the Yan region (present day Hebei Province) in ancient times. It was famous for its stiffness.

17 The chapter titled "Integrity" in Forum says, "The troops of the State of Yue invaded the State of Qi, Zi-di Yong-men thought that the troops of Yue upset his king. He felt greatly ashamed because he failed to protect his king. Consequently, he committed suicide."

18 "The old Prefect of Yun-zhong City" refers to Shang Wei in the Han dynasty. He was a famous general who made a great contribution in the war against the Huns during Emperor Wen's reign. The morale of his troops was so high that the Huns did not dare invade China's border. Later, he reported six more than the number of enemy soldiers that his troops actually killed. When his supervisor discovered his deception, he was fired. Tang Feng protested for him and called for redress in front of Emperor Wen. Then the emperor reinstated Shang Wei's position.