In 1912 a Chinese general, Yin Changheng, took an army of Sichuanese men into the mountains of eastern Tibet to assert (or re-assert) Chinese control over certain Tibetan territories after the Revolution of 1911 threw China’s relationship with Tibet into some confusion. A series of cables between Yin and Republic of China president Yuan Shikai, as well as Yin’s later memoir, show that food shortages were a persistent concern for Yin during his ambitious “western expedition” (xi zheng). Yin had the funds to purchase lots of rice in western Sichuan, but not the means to haul it up into the mountains–and there was little rice, wheat, or millet be found in the mountains. What were his men supposed to eat?
As I put it in a recent conference paper: “In 1912 a Chinese army went to war in Tibet and got very hungry.”
One phrase that Yin invoked repeatedly has been troubling me: shi jin bing qiong. 食盡兵窮. The meaning is accessible enough: “(the) food is spent, (the) soldiers are destitute/exhausted.” But Yin’s repeated use of this phrase, which appears both in his telegrams and his memoir, suggests that it was a set phrase–an allusion to something else. Where does this phrase come from?
With a little poking around, I found what may be the locus classicus of the phrase, and it turns out to be a very apt reference. The first instance of the phrase shi jin bing qiong that I have been able to find (so far) is toward the end of a poem titled Fang lü yan, or “Release of the Wandering Goose” by the renowned Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi–more than a thousand years before Yin’s time. The poem is narrated from the perspective of a man who has been exiled to the west (of the Tang empire) at a time of war, and who finds a live wild goose for sale at a market. The goose, he reckons, is a stranger in this land just like he is, and he buys the goose to release it back into the wild. But “by no means fly north,” warns the exiled man, because the northwest is at war.
Then comes the line in question: “The food is spent, the soldiers are exhausted, and they shall turn their eyes to you [the goose].” Speaking directly to the goose, the narrator warns: “those hungry boys will shoot and eat you / and turn your plumes into arrow fletching.” Here is my very loose-hand translation of the latter half of the poem:
Though the bird and I are different, we are both foreigners to this land
To see this foreign bird hurts this foreign man.
I shall buy you and release you to fly into the clouds.
Goose, goose, fly where you will, but by no means fly north;
west of the Huai [river] are evil forces unquelled.
A million armored soldiers long encamped,
our soldiers and the evil ones face off across an age.
The food is spent, the soldiers are exhausted, they turn their eyes to you.
Those hungry boys shall shoot and eat you,
and turn your plumes into arrow fletching.
Apart from the many possible metaphorical readings of the poem, it’s just a nice encapsulation of the relationship between war and food before the age of freeze-dried MREs: in many long term conflicts worldwide, soldiers were as likely or more likely to die of malnutrition than of battle wounds. It’s a theme that James Scott explores at length in The Art of Not Being Governed and Against the Grain, and that Lizzie Collingham probes in depth (for World War II!) in The Taste of War. And of course, it’s something I’m writing about in my ongoing project.