Song of the Frontier by Wang Zhihuan 凉州词

The Yellow River rises as high as white cloud;

The lonely town is lost amid the mountains proud.

Why should the Mongol flute complain no willows grow?

Beyond the Gate of Jade no vernal wind will blow.

黄河远上白云间,

—片孤城万仞山。

羌笛何须田怨杨柳,

春风不度玉门关。

This is a powerful and desolate frontier poem. The first two lines depict the JL scenery, and the latter two convey the poet’s emotion.

The first line describes a scene when one looks at the upper reaches of the Yellow River from the lower.  The second line portrays a lonely frontier mountain city, with the Yellow River and the connected mountains as its background. The picture it shows is broad and wild. The Yellow River, the mountains and the “lonely city” form a sharp contrast, getting prepared for the latter couplet to point out the gist.

The third line quotes the “Qiang’s flute” to express the writer’s complex feelings toward the soldiers in the border area. Staying long in the frontier pass and yearning for their hometown and family members, the soldiers wished to divert themselves from the sorrow of parting by blowing “The Willow Song”. Meanwhile, they knew that it was their duty to safeguard the country and that they ought not to feel aggrieved. With a figure of speech, the last line expresses the writer’s respects and sympathy for the soldiers’ devotion to the frontier, and also his dissatisfaction aroused by the fact that the soldiers hadn’t been cared for and loved enough.

The poem is both a picture scroll of the magnificent scenery of northern-western border area and a resentful song full of sympathy for the soldiers. It is full of pathos and majesty, and it’s grieved but not dispirited. The first line has equal satisfactory results as Li Bai’s line “the Yellow River comes from the sky”. Wang’s verse is still and tasteful, while Li’s is moving. They contrast pleasantly with each other, ranking the poetic masterpieces on the Yellow River through the ages.

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