Poems of Bai Juyi
Free the Hawks
November and hawks are loosed from their cages.
Grass all dry, pheasants and rabbits fat.
Hawks leave the glove in an instant and make
One hundred strikes without a single miss.
Hawk's wings, swift as wind.
Hawk's claws, sharp as awls.
Where once the hawk was free,
Now he must depend on man.
Who can manage these hunters rightly?
There is an easy way, you know.
It is your choice to support or oppose their nature.
You govern them at feeding time.
You must not stuff your hawk with food.
You must not keep it underfed.
Starve it and the bird lacks strength.
Stuff it and it will not leave the fist.
Feed it a little less when you want it full of fight
And a little more when you must keep it tied.
This way the strength of claw and wing,
As well as that of men, can come and go as needed.
The sage governs the hero
Just as the hunter governs the hawk.
Plain language must not be despised.
So say all the masters of the hunt.
Bai Juyi wrote poems that he kept to himself. He wrote poems which he shared with his friends. He wrote "political" ballads which he first tested on his servants and then released into the public where they were sung. These were intended to indirectly influence the powerful. And then he wrote public poems for direct consumption by the powerful. To me, this seems to be one of the latter. It certainly is not about hawks.
This poem is about all the fighting that was happening in the late Tang and the State's response to it. Rebels in the northeast, where Beijing now lies, were fighting back into power as the emperors again grew weak. The Uighur were pushing south along the long wall. And the Tibetans were pushing in from the west.
The State's response was to under-support the armies in the field while over-supporting the Imperial troops close at hand. So you had soldiers in the field without the strength to fight. And soldiers safe inside the borders who were too fat for combat. A recurring theme in History. The underfed ones mutinied. Some of the mutineers joined the rebellions where, at least, they were fed. The fat ones drank and gambled and joked about how glad they were not to be fighting for the glory of the Emperor.
The problem and its solution were so obvious that Bai Juyi could well have released this poem directly under his own name without any danger to himself. Of course, the Emperor did not listen. Another recurring theme.
American generals have repeatedly appeared before Congress warning that Americans are too fat to conduct a sustained conflict on the ground. Congress never listens. So we buy off Afghan warlords and Iraqi politicians. But faced with a ground conflict against actual Russian troops in the Ukraine, the decadent West, like Bartleby, "would prefer not to."
Late Tang. Late West. Another recurring theme is that, from here, it's all downhill.