Du Mu's Poem - Red Cliffs

The Poem “赤壁” (“Red

Cliffs”) by Du Mu (杜牧):





Please do not expect me to translate this poem per se, as it

is just too hard, if not impossible. Instead I’ll try to narrate the piece of

history that is told in the last two lines.

The first two lines merely

express the poet’s nostalgic feelings that were evoked on a visit of the

historic site where the deciding river battle (called Battle of Red Cliffs) giving

rise to the formal establishment of the Three Kingdoms (220 – 280) (Wei (魏), Shu (蜀), Wu (吳)) was fought. During the tour, he discovered a

piece of broken antique weapon buried in the sand and decided to clean it up

and verify its vintage. Satisfied that it belonged to the Three Kingdoms

period, he let his mind wander back in time to dwell on that historic river battle

and the romances of the iconic people involved.

“東風” (“East wind”) in the third

line brings out the story of that deciding battle in which the learned sage and

navy commander of Shu (蜀), named Zhuge

Liang (諸葛亮), who was well versed in astronomy

and reading the elements, relied on a brewing east wind to set off a big ring

fire which ultimately engulfed and destroyed the enemy’s enclosing fleet of

warships on the attack. The enemy’s navy was under the command of Cao Cao (曹操) of Wei (魏),

an aggressive and cunning Machiavellian type of ruler who had kidnapped the Han

emperor, had assumed ruling power over several provinces in the north and was

attempting to defeat the remaining two ruling empires in alliance, Shu (蜀) (ruled by Liu Bei (劉備))

and Wu (吳) (ruled first by Sun Ce (孫策), then by his brother Sun Quan (孫權)).

“周郎” (“Master Zhou”) in the same

line refers to Zhou Yu (周瑜), the

handsome, brainy and arrogant general of Wu (吳),

whose rulers were Sun Ce (孫策) and Sun Quan (孫權), both highly

intelligent and charismatic men.

The third line effectively says that had it not been for the

help of the east wind that the sage, Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮),

had accurately predicted would blow, Zhou Yu’s (周瑜)

navy would have been in troubled water. There’s a hidden mockery here targeted

at Zhou, as the egoistic general had always engaged in dead rivalry with Zhuge the

Sage on war strategies.

In order to understand what the fourth line tells, it is

necessary to dig into the love story of these two chivalrous gentlemen, Sun Ce (孫策) and Zhou Yu (周瑜).

One day, Sun Ce (孫策)

and his general Zhou Yu (周瑜) went on a

hunting trip and happened to come upon two beautiful and well groomed sisters

of the Qiao (喬) family. It was love at first

sight and the two men were instantly bewitched by their charm and talent. Soon

after, Sun married the elder sister while Zhou married the younger.

“二喬” (“The two Qiaos”) in the

fourth line refers to the two Qiao sisters.

“銅雀” (“The brass bird”) in the

same line is a symbolic term used to refer to Cao Cao (曹操).

The term is the name of a high platform used for distant viewing, rituals and

entertainment which Cao Cao ordered to be built as a symbol of imperial


In its entirety, the fourth line says, following on from the

third line, if Wu and Shu hadn’t been victorious in the Battle of Red Cliffs,

the wives of Sun and Zhou would have been captured by Cao Cao and locked away

in the deep corners of Cao’s palaces.

So, now you see why I said at the beginning that it’s

impossible to translate this poem!