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The Pen and Sword

Four multi-talented poet-generals from Chinese history

Though the pen may be mightier than the sword, having good technique with both implements leaves one almost invincible. In ancient Chinese history, to be “文武双全 (adept at both literature and war)” was an ideal to aspire to.

In the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Luo Guanzhong wrote,  “With his pen, he can pacify the realm; on horseback, he can dominate the world (文能提笔安天下,武能马上定乾坤)” in praise of Jiang Wei, a general of the Shu state, for his experise in both statecraft and combat. Poets with a talent for warfare are rare indeed, and these talented all-rounders tended to be remembered in history:

Fan Zhongyan 范仲淹

Every Chinese middle school student recognizes Fan Zhongyan’s name. They may not be too fond of the Song dynasty (960 — 1279) scholar, since they are required to memorize every word of Fan’s enduring essay The Yueyang Tower.

Born during a time when China was flourishing economically and culturally, but relatively weak in military terms, Fan passed the imperial exams and went on to become one of the most influential figures of the period. In 1015, at the age of 26, Fan was already famous for his literary works, including both essays and ci poetry. He was regarded as a forerunner of the “Unconstrained School (豪放派)” in ci writing, which became a favorite of later poets, including Su Dongpo.

Since the begining of the 11th centry, Li Yuanhao, the ruler of the Western Xia empire, had been leading troops to harass the northwestern border of the Song. In the 1040s, after the Song had suffered a series of defeats against the Western Xia, Fan was appointed the deputy military commissioner of Shaanxi. Fan reformed his armies’ defence strategies and drew the Western Xia forces into lengthy campaigns that their economy could not sustain. Later, a peace treaty was signed and prosperity returned to the region. The Book of the Song (《宋史》) praised for his tactical genius thus: “As if he had tens of thousands of soliders in his mind (胸中自有数万甲兵).”

Here is a ci work by Fan:

Pride of Fishermen 《渔家傲》

When autumn comes to the frontier, the scene looks drear;

Southbound wild geese won’t stay e’en for a day.

An uproar rises with horns blowing far and near.

Walled in by peaks, smoke rises straight

At sunset over isolated town with closed gate.

I hold a cup of wine, yet home is far away;

The northwest not yet won, I can’t but stay.

At the flutes’ doleful sound over frost-covered ground,

None falls asleep,

The general’s hair turns white and soldiers weep.

Xin Qiji 辛弃疾

Xin Qiji was a Chinese poet and military leader during the Southern Song dynasty (1127 — 1279). As a master of the “Unconstrained School” of ci, Xin was referred to as “the dragon of ci (词中之龙),” and, together with Su Dongpo, has become immortalised in the Chinese literary tradition.

Compared with Xin’s achievement in literature, his military talents are less well known. Born in Licheng county, Shandong province, in 1140, Xin was taught to despise the Jurchen invaders from the north, who had already conquered northern China, and to seek revenge and honor by reclaiming that territory.

At the age of 21, Xin started his quest, and joined a rebel army against the Jin dynasty (1115 — 1234). He earned plaudits for his bravery in battle at 25. Xin was granted a position in the Southern Song government, which still ruled in the south.

Despite Xin’s urgings for new military campaigns, the Song emperor refused to go to war with the Jin again, so Xin never got to achieve his dream of reconquering the northern territories. Xin’s political career was bumpy, with long stretches spent in forced exile—though this did give him time to work on his poetry.

Xin died in 1207, just as war had restarted between the Song and the Jin. His last words were apparently, “Kill the enemy!”

This poem by Xin expressed his desire go to the battlefield, and the regret that he had no chance to fulfill his dream:

Dance of the Cavalry 《破阵子》

Though drunk, we lit the lamp to see the glaive;         

Sober, we heard the horns from tent to tent.            

Under the flags, beef grilled                        

Was eaten by our warriors brave                    

And martial airs were played by fifty instruments:      

‘Twas an autumn maneuver in the field.         

On gallant steed,                                

Running full speed,                             

We’d shoot with twanging bows                     

Recovering the lost land for the sovereign,

‘Tis everlasting fame that we would win.

But alas! White hair grows!                      

Wen Tianxiang 文天祥

Born in 1236, when the Southern Song dynasty was nearing its end, Wen Tianxiang became prominent as a patriot and a symbol of loyality and integrity in Chinese history. But Wen’s talent as a poet was largely forgotten.

In 1256, Wen achieved the highest score in the imperial civil service exam, earning the title of zhuangyuan, and began to serve as a government official. In 1274, the Mongols sent armies to invade Song territory. They defeated the Song army in battle, sacked cities, and threatened the entire country.

To support the Song court in its defense of the realm, Wen headed to the capital at Lin’an (today’s Hangzhou), where he was appointed prime minister. Wen was captured and taken hostage by the Mongols during peace talks, but soon escaped and led the Song troops in battle personally. In 1278, Wen was captured yet again, and was this time offered a prestigious government post in the Mongols’ Yuan dynasty. Wen rejected the proposal, and spent four years in prison refusing every offer of employment he received from the Mongols. Wen was eventually executed in 1283.

In 1279, when he was escorted by the Mongols to the north, he wrote his famous poem “Pass the Lingding Ocean”:

Pass the Lingding Ocean 《过零丁洋》

Delving in the book of change,
I rose through hardship great.
And desperately fought for four long years.
Like willow down the war-torn land looks desolate.
I sink or swim as duckweed in the rain appears.
For the perils on Perilous Beach I have sighs.
On Lonely Ocean now I feel dreary and lonely.
Since olden days there’s never been a man but dies.
I’d leave a loyalist’s name in history only.

Yue Fei 岳飞

Another Song dynasty figure, Yue Fei was a renowned military general who led Southern Song forces in wars against the Jurchens in an effort to retake northern China. Though Yue was framed by corrupt officials, and later imprisoned and executed on false charges, he later became respected as a symbol of heroism and patriotism in China, a characterization that endures to this day.

Yue also wrote several sublime poems—though the number is far less than the poems written about him by writers in later dynasties.

Yue’s best-known poem is probably “The River All Red”:

The River All Red 《满江红》

Wrath sets on end my hair, I lean on railings where I see the drizzling rain has ceased.

Raising my eyes towards the skies I heave long sighs, my wrath not yet appeased.

To dust is gone the fame achieved at thirty years like cloud-veiled moon the thousand-mile land disappears;

Should youthful heads in vain turns gray, we would regret for aye.

Lost our capital, what a burning shame.

How can we generals quench our vengeful flame!

Driving our chariots of war, we’d go to break through our relentless foe.

Valiantly we’d cut off each head. Laughing, we’d drink the blood the shed.

When we’ve reconquered our lost land, in triumph would return our army grand.

All poems translated by Xu Yuanchong

Cover image from VCG


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