Poems of Meng Jiao
Escorting Zheng's archers out of the southern hills
(An entertainment of Zheng Xingyuan and his levee of archers)
An esteemed elder appointed general.
Red banners to enter green hills.
Summoned again before the gates,
They ended up mostly wasted.
They looked like clowns on horseback
As they boldly raced about.
Then they dawdled down the high road
Like women preserving their looks.
You already know their story.
How the leader was simply useless.
How the best were only puppies
And the rest were pure hangers-on.
Those who value their lives don't go there.
And the prudent only go there with difficulty.
Faint hearts stranded in the wilderness --
How will they ever live it down?
The story appears to be that old Zheng Xingyuan got himself appointed commander of an expedition. Using his best judgment, he gathered up the worst troops possible. And then, marching south, he disappeared into the southern hills. Eventually, someone noticed they were missing. Meng Jiao, and who knows how many others, were sent out to find them. And when found they were where they absolutely shouldn't have been, sick and all worn out.
Some readers may be sceptical about a fifty-something poet being sent out to find troops. If you live near the wilderness, you learn that the usual first-responders aren't all that great in finding lost or dead people. First-responders everywhere are mostly city folk with day jobs. It is by no means unusual for the actual finding to be done by men in their fifties or even seventies. Some things take a long time and a great deal of experience to learn. And the wilderness is one of those things.
The "puppies" are literally "pale-faced youths" and the "pure hangers-on" are more literally "those who hang around the periphery of the imperial court."