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Poem for General Pei

    Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD) wrote many calligraphic masterpieces.

    These include the running script masterpiece linked to the An Lushan Rebellion (765 – 763 AD), Draft of a Requiem for my Nephew.

    And the much admired Copy of the Letter on Seating Protocol.

    But Poem on Seeing off General Pei stands out as his most innovative piece.

    Basic information

    Poem on Seeing off General Pei (送裴将军诗帖 [Sòng Péi Jiāngjūn Shī Tiē]) is the name of a one of Yan Zhenqing’s calligraphy pieces, which contains his Poem on General Pei (裴将军诗 [Péi Jiāngjūn Shī].

    The original of this calligraphic piece no longer exists. The closest to that it is an ink rubbing of a stone inscription of it.

    It was written in contains just 93 characters written in a mix of standard script, running script, and grass script. This mixture of scripts on a single piece was unusual (and innovative) in its time.

    The characters are large (up to 10cm) and arranged in varied columns of between three to five characters.

    In the context of Yan’s other calligraphy, the piece is remarkably bold and expressive.

    To see what the piece looks like, click here (I can’t currently find a version of the image with rights to use. Hopefully I will eventually!)

    Authorship issue

    It isn’t known for certain that the poem was written by Yan Zhenqing.

    This is because the existing ink rubbing, and poem’s text, are not signed by Yan. And it was not included in the earliest collection of Yan’s writings, which was compiled between 1056 -64 (about 279 years after Yan’s death).

    However, it did appear in the second edition of Yan’s collected words, in 1215. Many fakes were (often unknowingly) passed around throughout Chinese history though.

    Amy McNair remarked:

    […] we should note that the content of the poem is perfectly plausible for a person of Yan Zhenqing’s background. Pei Min [General Pei] was a friend and contemporary of Zhang Xu, under whom Yan Zhenqing studied cursive script, and other poems celebrating the general’s daring exploits were written by Wang Wei (701 – 761) and Yan’s brother-in-law Cen Shen.

    – Amy McNair, The Upright Brush: Yan Zhenqing’s Calligraphy and Song Literati Politics (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998), p. 78

    (Simplified) Chinese text of Poem on General Pei


    English translation

    Whilst the great sovereign ruled all six directions [North, South, East, West, Heaven, Earth/below], your fierce forces brought peace in the nine boundaries.

    Your war horses were like dragons and tigers, magnificently galloping over hills!

    As you, General, approached the northern wilderness, your brilliance and bravery shone. 

    Your sword danced like leaping thunder, and echoed along the winds. 

    You ascended and looked out from the heavenly mountains, where white snow-covered rocky peaks.

    As you destroyed the vain barbarians, your resounding magnificence rumbled like thunder.

    A single arrow felled one hundred horses, a follow-up scattered ten thousand men.

    The Xiongnu [a people then outside China’s borders] didn’t dare fight [you], they shouted as they fled.

    Successful, you reported back to the emperor. Your portrait could hang in the Qilin Pavillion [a pavilion where great official’s portraits were hung during the Han dynasty].