The carts squeak and trundle, the horses whinny, the conscripts go by, each
with a bow and arrows at his waist. Their fathers, mothers, wives, and children
run along beside them to see them off. The Hsien-yang Bridge cannot be seen for
dust. They pluck at the men's clothes, stamp their feet, or stand in the way
weeping. The sound of their weeping seems to mount up to the blue sky above. A
passer-by questions the conscripts, and the conscripts reply:
"They're always mobilizing now! There are some of us who went north at
fifteen to garrison the River and who are still, at forty, being sent to the
Military Settlements in the west. When we left as lads, the village headman had
to tie our head-cloths for us. We came back white-haired, but still we have to
go back for frontier duty! On those frontier posts enough blood has flowed to
fill the sea; but the Martial Emperor's dreams of expansion remain unsatisfied.
Haven't you heard, sir, in our land of Han, throughout the two hundred
prefectures east of the mountains briers and brambles are growing in thousands
of little hamlets; and though many a sturdy wife turns her own hand at the
hoeing and ploughing, the crops grow just anywhere, and you can't see where one
field ends and the next begins? And it's even worse for the men from Ch'in.
Because they make such good fighters, they are driven about this way and that
like so many dogs or chickens.
"Though you are good enough to ask us, sir, it's not for the likes of
us to complain. But take this winter, now. The Kuan-hsi troops are not being
demobilized. The District Officers press for the land-tax, but where is it to
come from? I really believe it's a misfortune to have sons. It's actually
better to have a daughter. If you have a daughter, you can at least marry her
off to one of the neighbors; but a son is born only to end up lying in the
grass somewhere, dead and unburied. Why look, sir, on the shores of the Kokonor
the bleached bones have lain for many a long year, but no one has ever gathered
them up. The new ghosts complain and the old ghosts weep, and under the grey
and dripping sky the air is full of their baleful twittering."