“Skulls in the Sage” by Cao Cao

Cao Cao (155-220 C.E.) was a statesman, master of military affairs and a great poet. He became the Prime Minister of the Chinese kingdom of Wei in 209, in 214 was knighted the Duke of Wei, in 217 became the King of Wei and was conferred the title Emperor Wu of Wei after his death. The few poems of his still remaining were all written in the yuefu or folkloric ballad form, which Cao Cao adapted to explore issues of his time. Though a military leader, he was not oblivious to the suffering that war caused.

Skulls in the Sage

Nits and lice thrive in empty armor,
Ten thousand people perished, dead—
White bones strewn across the wilds,
No rooster crows for miles and miles.
For every hundred, one man survives:
Just thinking of it breaks my heart.

—from “Marching Through Wormwood”
translated April 9, 2014

Original Chinese

铠甲生虮虱,
万姓以死亡,
白骨露于野,
千里无鸡鸣,
生民百遗一,
念之断人肠。

Kǎi jiǎ shēng jī shī,
Wàn xìng yǐ sǐ wáng,
Bái gǔ lù yū yě,
Qiān lǐ wū jī míng,
Shēng mín bǎi yí yī,
Niàn zhī duàn rēn cháng.

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