Poems of Bai Juyi
Officer Li's Old Sword
Ancient sword, cold and almost black,
Cast and hammered centuries ago,
Gleaming bright in light of sun or moon
Like an auspicious portent of Heavenly stars.
A swordsman, with only one glance, falls
In love, but dares not beg to hold you.
Gleaming from within your case of jade,
You are an autumn's clear stream, unable to flow.
You have a nature all your own,
A steely essence that turns your wielder friendless.
You can only divide the world into slices.
Your fingers offer no soft caress.
Your quick desire straightens a wielder's heart,
So that he severs the flattering official's head.
You seem superior to the vengeance of a slight offense,
But at midnight, you carry out your personal vendetta.
My friend, be careful how you use this sword.
Undrawn, it will not shame your martial spirit.
The poem 李都尉古剑 was written around 808, while Bai Juyi was still a minor official and living near Chang'an. If we know anything about his friend Imperial Officer Li, I am unaware of it. 都尉 is still a bigram meaning "military rank" but in Bai Juyi's time would probably have been a title of rank.
I see this poem as an expression of Bai Juyi's humanity and his sense of what swords stand for in the mind of man and what they lead man to do. The Tang Dynasty (唐朝) ran from 618 to 907 and was familiar with wars and the swords used to wage them. At its peak, the Tang Army numbered half a million men. In Bai Juyi's time, the empire was in decline and soldiers were needed not only for war with the Central Asian Turkic peoples and Western Tibetans but for putting down, or failing to put down, rebellions and for keeping banditry and piracy in check.
Bai Juyi probably did not object to the stability swords helped provide. He probably wore one himself. Li Bai (李白) was as much a swordsman as a poet, at least in his younger days. And even Kongzi (孔子 or Confucius) wore one. There's no reason to think Bai Juyi didn't have and appreciate his own wenjian (文剑 or scholar's sword.) Maybe he enjoyed practicing his jianfa (剑法 or sword skills) with his friend Li.
Unlike the Zen poet Hakuin, who praised the samurai, their swords, and their conventions of death, Bai Juyi sees the sword as having a nature of its own. Swords have a single nature, one of cold harshness and selfish destructiveness. And this one nature becomes the nature of all who wield them without holding fast to their humanity. Bai Juyi does not oppose himself to Officer Li's martial spirit. He supports that spirit. But he understands that the spirit of the sword is not the spirit of mankind. If man is to have peace and stability, these must come from the spirit of man, not the harsh, cold spirit of selfish destruction.