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!