To the Captain of the Huns

(From the text of a 2nd century BC letter from
Wen-ti, Emperor of the Han Dynasty, to the ruler
of the nomadic Hsiung-nu, ‘Huns’. The poem
echoes the official style of the Court).


To the great Hun Captain, greetings;
may the seasons long be with him.
Respectfully, the gift he sent US,
two fine horses, is accepted.

But WE must divulge unto him
grievances of late arising.
In the time of Han’s first Emperor
policies became established
and were firmly set in motion
where the northern-roaming peoples
– peoples northward of the Long Wall,
nations of the bow and arrow –
were the great Hun Captain’s wardens,
ordered by and subject to him.
All within the Long Wall – namely,
kindred of the hat and girdle –
to be ordered by and subject
to the House of Han’s dominion.
Thereby would both peoples prosper,
pursuing each their avocations –
OURS engaged in cultivation
and the art of cloth production,
yours in archery and hunting,
that you might find food and clothing.
Families would not be severed,
suzerain and vassal, peaceful;
neither side would suffer violence.

But WE hear that certain persons,
by the hope of gain incited,
by the chance of booty guided,
threw aside their sworn allegiance;
breached their treaty obligations.
Though, WE put such things behind US
since your letter to US saying
how the two states had been friendly,
and their rulers friendly likewise;
tramping armies had been quieted –
peaceful occupations followed
through successive generations.
These are words to bring rejoicing.
Let us then proceed together,
tread, abreast, the path of wisdom,
start afresh with due compassion
for the peoples charged unto us –
sanction quiet for the aged,
for the young provide occasion
for a life untouched by danger.

Han and Hun are border nations,
cheek by jowl each to the other.
In your north the cold comes early,
locking you in hardship yearly.
Wherefore yearly have we sent you
bounteous gifts of food and clothing.
Now is peace about the Empire,
and its people thrive and prosper.
Of both folk we are as parents,
standing close as father, mother.
Let us not for trivial causes
lightly sever bonds of friendship.
Heaven covers many people,
earth a resting-place for all men;
let us cast aside all trifles –
on the broader path now venture.
Let us mind not bygone troubles,
but with firm desire endeavour
to cement a lasting friendship,
that our peoples live as brothers.
Let us then dismiss past quarrels,
count as nothing old contentions.
For in old days did our rulers
never break their faith in treaties.
Think on this then, O Great Captain.
And when peace prevails among us,
when it holds again between us,
never will it first be severed
through the House of Han’s endeavours.

From ‘Poems from the Chinese’


Note: This is not a translation of a piece of poetry, but my verse adaptaton of an official document already translated into English prose (by the renowned Sinologist H.A. Giles in 1883). The letter was penned in 162 BC by Wen-ti, 180-157 BC, Emperor of the Former Han Dynasty, to Chi-chu, ruler of the nomadic steppe-based empire of the Hsiung-nu ‘Huns‘ 174-160 BC. I have followed closely Giles’ translation of the letter. Except for a small number of curious or minor details, the complete text of the letter has been included in the poem.

The use of the term ‘Hun’ to allude to the Hsiung-nu is something of a literary convenience – whether the names are in any way cognate, and whether those steppe peoples who entered the Eastern Roman Empire during the closing years of the 4th century AD and called ‘Huns’ by the Romans may be identified with descendants of the Hsiung-nu, are questions still under discussion.

‘The Great Hun Captain’: The title of the rulers of the Hsiung-nu, indeed all terms relating to the steppe-nomads at that period, are known only by their Chinese transcription ‘shan-yu’, which Giles has translated as ‘Captain’. In a letter to Wen-ti, Mao-tun, father of Chi-chu, is known to have styled himself ‘great shan-yu of the Hsiung-nu established by heaven’.

When the two empires came into serious confrontation during the early Han period, neither side was capable of gaining real control over the other, but the advantage lay, by and large, with the steppe-nomads. To prevent incursions into their territory and to stem defections by their border population, the Chinese adopted a policy of appeasement, aimed at drawing the nomads into the Chinese cultural sphere, and, in the long term, absorbing them. The first treaty was initiated in 198 BC by Kao-ti, the ‘Han’s first emperor’ of the poem. Three of the four terms of agreement of these treaties are outlined in the poem:

1) That the Long Wall (the ‘Great Wall’) should serve as the frontier between the two peoples;

2) That ‘gifts’ including rice and garments should be sent by the Han several times a year;

3. That the Han and Hsiung-nu should be ‘brotherly states’ of equal status.

The fourth, which gave name to the treaties – the ho-ch’in (harmonious kinship) treaties – stipulated a marriage arrangement between the two peoples, calling for a Han ‘princess’ to be given in marriage to the shan-yu at each ruler’s succession. Such ‘princesses’ were invariably selected from cadet or discredited lines of the extended Imperial family.

It is interesting to note that the pluralis majesatis, the imperial ‘we‘ – as in Victoria’s ‘We are not amused‘ – is used by the Han Emperor. I have followed Giles’ capitalization here, taking it that he accurately followed an indication in the original document.

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