In one of Du Mu’s (杜牧) seven-character quatrains, a whole swathe of ancient Chinese history is condensed into just four rhyming lines. The poem is called “赤壁” (“Red Cliffs”) and the story told is very similar to that depicted by Su Shi’s (蘇軾) sentimental lyric poem “念奴嬌: 赤壁懷古” (“Nian Nu Jiao: Reminiscing Red Cliffs”). In my humble opinion, Du Mu’s sparse use of words (28 characters in total) in painting the romantic story of the Three Kingdoms period exemplifies the absolute magic of the Chinese language.
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 by 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 ruler was Sun Quan (孫權), a highly intelligent and charismatic man.
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.
One day, Sun Quan (孫權) 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 Ciao (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 Ciaos”) in the fourth line refers to the two Ciao 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 authority.
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!