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Hymn to the Fallen (Jiu Ge)

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Dec 15, 2021

“Hymn to the Fallen” (Jiu Ge) (traditional Chinese: 國殤; simplified Chinese: 国殇; pinyin: Guó shāng; lit. ‘National casualties’) is a Classical Chinese poem which has been preserved in the Nine Songs (Jiu Ge) section of the ancient Chinese poetry anthology, the Chu ci, or The Songs of Chu, which is an ancient set of poems. Together, these poems constitute one of the 17 sections of the poetry anthology which was published under the title of the Chuci (also known as the Songs of Chu or as the Songs of the South). Despite the “Nine” in the title (Jiu ge literally means Nine Songs), the number of these poetic pieces actually consists of eleven separate songs, or elegies.[1] This set of verses seems to represent some shamanistic dramatic practices of the Yangzi River valley area (as well as a northern tradition or traditions) involving the invocation of divine beings and seeking their blessings by means of a process of courtship.[2] The poetry consists of lyrics written for performance as part of a religious drama, however the lack of stage directions or indications of who is supposed to be singing at any one time or whether some of the lines represent lines for a chorus makes an accurate reconstruction of how such a shamanic drama would actually have been performed quite uncertain; although, there are internal textual clues, for example indicating the use of spectacular costumes for the performers, and an extensive orchestra.[3] Although not precisely dated, “Hymn to the Fallen” dates from the end of the late the Warring States period, ended 221 BCE, with possible revisions in the Han dynasty, particularly during the reign of Han Wudi, during 141 to 87 BCE . The poem has been translated into English by David Hawkes as “Hymn to the Fallen”. “Guo shang” is a hymn to soldiers killed in war. Guó (國) means the “state”, “kingdom”, or “nation”. Shāng (殤) means to “die young”. Put together, the title refers to those who meet death in the course of fighting for their country. David Hawkes describes it as “surely one of the most beautiful laments for fallen soldiers in any language”.[4]

A collection of typical ge and crossbow bolts from the Warring States

. . . Hymn to the Fallen (Jiu Ge) . . .

The meter is a regular seven-character verse, with three characters separated by the exclamatory particle “” followed by three more characters, each composing a half line, for a total of nine double lines totaling 126 characters.(國殤[5])

The historical background of the “Hymn to the Fallen” poem involves the ancient type of warfare practiced in ancient China. Included are references to arms and weapons, ancient states or areas, and the mixed use of chariots in warfare. A good historical example of this type of contest is the “Battle of Yanling“, which features similar characteristics and problems experienced by participants in this type of fighting, such as greatly elevated mortality rates for both horses and humans. As is generally the in the case of Chu ci poems, it is concerned with events or matters relating to Chu, whether considered as a political state or as or pertaining to the area in which that state was located. Thus “Hymn to the Fallen” refers to a battle (whether real or imaginary) involving Chu warriors, although the characteristic warfare described would similar to that of the early Han dynasty.

Map of Warring States, 260BCE, showing Chu (楚), having incorporated Wu (吳), bordered by Qin (秦)

The state of Chu was a kingdom dating back to early 8th century BCE. During its existence there was frequent armed violence; indeed, the latter part of its existence is known for that reason as Warring States period (beginning early Fifth Century BCE). This was a period characterized by struggles between the different kingdoms for supremacy until their final political consolidation by Qin in 221 BCE. (Chu was annexed in 223 BCE.) During the Warring States era, warfare developed in ways characteristic to what is depicted in “Hymn to the Fallen”. There was also often factional violence within the states, often related. The Confucian philosopher Xun Zi (Shun Kuang) comments on this in his early Third Century BCE book known eponymously as the Xunzi or Works of Xun Zi:

The soldiers of Chu were equipped with armour made of sharkskin and rhinoceros hide hard as metal or stone, and pikes of Nanyang steel that could sting a man like a wasp or scorpion. They were so light and mobile that they seemed to move about like the wind. Yet at Chui-sha the Chu army was all but destroyed and its commander Tang Mie […] was killed. Zhuang Jiao led a rising in the capital and the country split in several parts. This was not because they lacked strong armour and sharp weapons but because they did not know how to use them.[6]

Further information: Sunzi Bingfa

“Hymn to the Fallen” specifically mentions several types of weapon and other characteristics of early Chinese warfare and culture. Specific understanding of this type of warfare and the cultural background enhances specific understanding of the poem; this includes specific weapons, armor, vehicles, and methodology of war.

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