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Lament for the Old Battlefield

Li, Hua 1 (?-766 CE)
    All I could see was a huge expanse of flat sand. There were no traces of men within view. The river wound around like a belt. The mountains rose and fell in disorder. The place was dark and desolate as the sun was setting and the wind was howling. The frozen raspberry stems were snapped by the wind. The grass was burned by the chill. It was as cold as a frosty morning. Birds would not land on this haunted place and a herd of beasts passing by would stampede and become scattered. A constable told me, "This was an old battlefield where an entire army was annihilated. On a cloudy day one can hear the weeping of ghosts." It was disheartening. Was it a battlefield of the Qin dynasty? Was it a battlefield of the Han dynasty? Or was it a battlefield of modern times?

    I heard that the two states, Qi and Wei, sent many soldiers to garrison their borders. Two other states, Chu and Han recruited mercenary soldiers. These soldiers traveled thousands of miles, walking under the scorching sun and sleeping on dew-drenched ground year after year. In the morning, the soldiers let their horses graze on the grass in the sand. At night they waded through icy waters. The horizon was wide, and the sky was high. It was difficult for them to find their way home. The soldiers devoted themselves to their swords and had no one to listen to their grievances. From the Qin dynasty forward, China has fought many wars around our borders. It has frequently suffered heavy losses. In ancient times, neighboring countries would not invade China because China promoted virtue. While Chinese culture and education went off track, the military started to display its prowess. Its morals strayed from virtue. The military did not aspire to virtue because it thought it was impractical.

    When the north wind blew across the desert, the enemy took advantage and snuck in. The defending general dismissed the enemy as impotent, so he had to fight against them in front of his camp. The army flags flapped on the wild battlefield 2. The soldiers wearing armor waded through torrential rivers 3. Marshal laws were strict and fearsome. A commander held absolute authority and a soldier's life was not worth a straw. Sharp arrows shot through bones. Sandstorms blew on soldiers’ faces. As our troops engaged with the enemy, the sound of war drums shocked the mountains and the rivers. The power of battle-cries could have split a river in two. The rushing soldiers and horses built up the momentum of destruction as if a thunderstorm were coming. Near the chilly seashore a heavy snowstorm made it difficult for the traveling soldiers to breathe. The snow came up to their knees and their breath froze on their mustaches. Their coats could not hold in their body heat for long. Their skin started to crack and their fingers were becoming numb. Eagles hid in their nests. The war horses hesitated and did not dare to advance. The northern foreigners who were used to cold weather took this opportunity to invade China. After being caught in the horrible atmosphere of the war, they killed people brutally. They robbed our army supply wagons and attacked our soldiers. Our generals were killed and our colonels surrendered. The corpses covered the shore of the large port. Blood filled the caves 4 near the Great Wall. No matter how rich or poor these people were, they all became bones. Such a horrible scene was beyond description.

    As the sounds of drums died out, our strength was exhausted. The arrows were used up; the bow strings were broken. However, the battle raged on. The two armies marched toward each other and confronted an imminent death. When the swords met, even metal broke into pieces. If we had surrendered, we would have wandered in a foreign country for life. If we had chosen to fight, our bones would have been left exposed in the desert. The birds were silent and the mountains were quiet. The night was long and the wind sounded ominous. As ghosts gathered together, the clouds became heavy. As spirits assembled, the sky became dark. The sunshine was so cold that the grass did not grow. The moonlight was bitterly lonesome and the earth shone white with frost. How gloomy it was!

    General Mu Li of the State of Zhao used only a few soldiers to defeat the Huns. The enemy fled and he advanced a thousand miles. In contrast, the Han dynasty used up all its wealth fighting wars, so its people became poor and exhausted. This shows victory depended on a few talented generals rather than the number of soldiers. The Zhou dynasty repelled the Xian-yun 5 Tribe north to Tai-yuan City. After Zhou's troops built Shuo-fang City 6 for defense, they returned without any casualties. The government celebrated their victory with a banquet and honored the soldiers by handing out medals in recognition of their heroic deeds. The soldiers were happy, harmonious, and enjoying peace. The emperor and the generals trusted and respected each other. The Qin dynasty built the Great Wall east to the sea. The mammoth project cost many peoples lives. A thousand miles of dark red trailed behind 7. Though the Han dynasty defeated the Huns and captured Yin Mountain 8, dead soldiers were scattered across the battlefield. Its gains could not compensate its losses.

    All people have parents who raise them, care about them and hope that they may live a long life. They have brothers who cherish them as their hands and feet. They have spouses who respect them as guests or friends. It is a great blessing to be born, and a hateful evil to be killed. After a battle, one's family remained uncertain of one’s fate. When there was a rumor spread around, one could only half believe and half doubt. The person that one worried about in daytime would appear in one's dreams at night. When one honored a spirit with food and wine, he wept and wished that a miracle could unite him with the spirit. The entire world was sad; even the grass and the trees looked wretched. If we did not honor these spirits, they would not have any place to settle. After the war, there were years of hardship because people were scattered everywhere. The aftermath was devastating. Was this chance or fate? There have been wars since ancient times, and it seems impossible to change this trend. Therefore, the best way to protect our country is to befriend our neighbors and let them defend us.

1 Xia-shu was Hua Li's alternate first name. He was a native of Zan-huang City. He passed the Advanced Exam during the Kai-yuan period. When he was young, he was broad-minded. He appeared open and frank, but inside he was cautious. He always kept his word. During the Tian-bao Period, he became the Attorney General. His impartiality and incorruptibility regarding impeachment offended powerful officials. Later, he resigned his position and lived in seclusion at Shan-yang City. He advised his children to farm for a living and be content with poverty. During his late years, he did not write much and became a Buddhist.

2 This sentence refers to the land war.

3 This sentence refers to the naval war.

4 "The caves" refers to mountain caves. The Great Wall was built on the mountains.

5 Xian-yun was a tribe to the north of China during the Zhou dynasty. During Emperor Xuan-wang's reign, Xian-yun invaded China and closed in on the capital. The emperor ordered General Ji-fu Yin to lead the troops to war. General Yin banished Xian-yun north to Tai-yuan City and then returned home.

6 Shuo-fang City was located at Ordos City in Nei Monggu Autonomous Region.

7 Blood is originally red. After a while, it will darken.

8 Yin Mountain in Nei Monggu Autonomous Region had a military advantage. It could block the Huns who lived north of the Gobi Desert from invading China.