No Comment — August 30, 2007, 12:20 am

Bai Juyi’s ‘The Prisoner’

Kyrgyz led in chains,
Kyrgyz led in chains!

Their ears pierced, their faces bruised—they are driven into the kingdom of Chin.
The Son of Heaven took pity on them and would not have them slain.
He sent them away to the south-east, to the lands of Wu and Yüeh.
A petty officer in a yellow coat took down their names and surnames.
They came from the city of Chang’an under escort of an armed guard.
Their bodies were covered with the wounds of arrows,
Their bones stood out from their cheeks.
They had grown so weak they could only march a single stage a day.
In the morning they must satisfy hunger and thirst with neither plate nor cup:
At night they must lie in their dirt and rags on beds that stank with filth.
Suddenly they come to the Yangtze River, but they remember the waters of the Chui.
With lowered hands and leveled voices they sobbed a muffled song.
Then one Kyrgyz lifted up his voice and spoke to the others:
Your sorrows are none at all compared to my sorrows.”
Those that were with him in the same band asked to hear his tale:
As he tried to speak the words were choked by anger.
He told them: “I was born and bred in the town of Liangyuan.
In the frontier wars of Tali, I fell into the hands of the Kyrgyz.
Since the days the Kyrgyz took me alive forty years have passed:
They put me into a coat of skins tied with a belt of rope.
Only on the first of the first month might I wear my Chinese gown.
As I put on my coat and arranged my cap, how fast the tears flowed!
I made in my heart a secret vow: I would find a way home:
I hid my plan from my Kyrgyz wife and the children she had borne me in the land.
I thought to myself, “It is well for me that my limbs are still strong,”
And yet, being old, in my heart I feared I should never live to return.

The Kyrgyz chieftains shoot so well that the birds are afraid to fly:
From the risk of their arrows, I escaped alive and fled swiftly home.
Hiding all day and walking all night, I cross the Great Desert.
Where clouds are dark and the moon black and the sands eddy in the wind.
Frightened, I sheltered at the Green Grave, where the frozen grasses are few:
Stealthily I crossed the Yellow River, at night, on the thin ice,
Suddenly I heard Chinese drums and the sound of soldiers coming:
I went to meet them at the roadside, bowing to them as they came.
But the moving horsemen did not hear that I spoke the Chinese language:
Their captain took me for a Kyrgyz born and he had me bound in chains.
They are sending me away to the south-east, to a low and swampy land:
No one will take pity on me: resistance is all in vain.
Thinking of this, my voice chokes and I ask of Heaven above:
Was I spared from death only to spend the rest of my years in sorrow?
My native village of Liang-yuan I shall not see again:
My wife and children in the Kyrgyz land, I have fruitlessly deserted.
When I fell among Kyrgyz and was taken prisoner, I pined for China:
Now that I am back in China, they have turned me into a Kyrgyz.
Had I but known what my fate would be, I would not have started home!
For the two lands, so wide apart, are alike in the sorrow they bring.
Kyrgyz prisoners in chains!
Of all the sorrows of all the prisoners, mine is the hardest to bear!
Never in the world has so great a wrong befallen the low of man,–
A Chinese heart and a Chinese tongue set in the body of a Kyrgyz.”

Bai Juyi (???), The Prisoner (809 CE)(following a translation of Arthur Waley)

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



November 2016

In The Hollow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Coming Apart

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Swat Team

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Escape from The Caliphate

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In This One

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Swat Team·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As we shall see, for the sort of people who write and edit the opinion pages of the Post, there was something deeply threatening about Sanders and his political views."
Illustration by John Ritter
Escape from The Caliphate·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"When Matti invited me on a tour of the neighborhood, I asked about security. 'The message has already been passed to ISIS that you’re here,' he said. 'But don’t worry. I guarantee I could bring even you in and out of the Islamic State.'"
Photograph by Alice Martins
In This One·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Years ago, I lived in Montana, a land of purple sunsets, clear streams, and snowflakes the size of silver dollars drifting through the cold air. There were no speed limits and you could legally drive drunk. My small apartment in Missoula had little privacy. In order to write, I rented an off-season fishing cabin on Rock Creek, a one-room place with a bed and a bureau. I lacked the budget for a desk. My idea was to remove a sliding door from a closet in my apartment and place it over a couple of hastily cobbled-together sawhorses.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
“Don’t Touch My Medicare!”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Medicare’s popularity, however, comes with almost no understanding of what the program is and how it works."
Illustration by Nate Kitch
In The Hollow·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"I’m a gun owner, drive a pickup, and fish from a johnboat. I also recycle, believe in women’s reproductive rights, and own a Prius as a second car. Politically, I don’t fit in anywhere, either."
photographs by Stacy Kranitz

Average exam score, in a SUNY-Fredonia study, for students who only listened to a podcast of their professor’s lecture:


Boys in Taiwan are likelier than girls to vomit in order to lose weight.

Hundreds of women in yoga pants marched through Barrington, Rhode Island, to defend their right to wear the garment, and Trump vowed to sue every woman accusing him of sexual assault. “I look so forward to doing that,” he said.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


A nightly scene in London

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.


"She never thanked me, never looked at me—melted away into the miserable night, in the strangest manner I ever saw. I have seen many strange things, but not one that has left a deeper impression on my memory than the dull impassive way in which that worn-out heap of misery took that piece of money, and was lost."

Subscribe Today