- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access the Harper’s archive
ALERT: Usernames and passwords from the old Harpers.org will no longer work. To create a new password and add or verify your email address, please sign in to customer care and select Email/Password Information. (To learn about the change, please read our FAQ.)
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)
More from Scott Horton:
No Comment — April 12, 2013, 11:11 am
A new report from Seton Hall University exposes government surveillance of attorney-client conversations
Rashid Khalidi on how the United States sustains the failure of the Israel-Palestine peace process
Alex Gibney on his documentary investigating the Roman Catholic Church’s handling of child sex-abuse cases
Lucas Mann on hope and change in a minor-league-baseball city
Minimum number of baboons forced to smoke crack in a 1989 study testing the efficacy of cigarettes as a drug delivery device:
A reduction in distrust toward atheists was documented among pious Canadians who are reminded of the Vancouver police.
A Missouri cinema apologized for hiring an actor dressed in body armor and carrying a fake rifle to appear at a screening of Iron Man 3.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
Winner of the 2012 Olivier Rebbot Award for best photographic reporting from abroad in magazines or books