Chin Peng’s favourite poems

In Flanders Fields is the best-known war poem, written by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae in 1915. The first stanza carries these famous lines:

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”

From the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae

This poem has been immortalised by the image of scarlet poppies. Now, I am going to share with you a Chinese war poem, which is marked by the image of thousands of bleached bones.

The poet 曹松 (Cáo Sōng) in the Tang Dynasty wrote this famous war poem called 己亥岁 (Jǐ hài suì). The first four lines of the poem are:

泽国江山入战图,
生民何计乐樵苏。
凭君莫话封侯事,
一将功成万骨枯。

From the poem 己亥岁 (Jǐ hài suì) by 曹松 (Cáo Sōng)

My translation for this poem is:

“The An Lushan Rebellion has turned the fertile south of the Yangtze river into a war zone. Going about our normal life such as gathering firewood and cutting the grass were impossible. I beg that the king does not honour the general, because a general’s success was built upon thousands of bleached bones.”

The cruelty of wars is symbolised in the vivid image of the bleached bones: “Because a general’s success was built upon thousands of bleached bones.” (‘yi jiàng gōng chéng wàn gǔ kū)

Chin Peng summarised his life in a poem

An Lushan(703–757) was a Chinese general of Iranian and Turkish descent. He failed to form a new dynasty to replace the flourishing Tang Dynasty. During his 7-year rebellion, he was murdered by a slave supported by his own son. The rebellion weakened the power of the central authority, resulting in warlords controlling parts of the country.

British air power: a vital factor in carrying the fight in the Malaya jungle. © IWM (MAL 93)

British air power: a vital factor in carrying the fight in the Malayan jungle during the Malayan Emergency. © IWM (MAL 93)

I introduce this poem to you for a reason. The communist guerrilla leader and political activist in Malaya Chin Peng once evaluated his whole life with “the bleached bones”.

In an in-depth interview in 2001 with distinguished journalist Thunder Looi (pen name 胡一刀 Hú Yīdāo) from Malaysia, Chin Peng was asked to use a poem to define himself. Chin Peng responded, “A general’s fame was built upon thousands of bleached bones.” (‘yi míng gōng chéng wàn gǔ kū.)

You may have noticed that Chin Peng changed the word in the original poem from ‘success’ to ‘fame’. He confessed that he was not successful, however, he admitted that he had gained fame. Chin Peng did not consider himself to have earned success, but he accepted that he achieved “just a bit of fame.”

Sergeant William Goldie of the 1st Battalion The Loyal (North Lancashire) Regiment searches a Malay cyclist on a road near Ipoh for any supplies or material he may be smuggling through to the communist guerillas. © IWM (D 88057)

Sergeant William Goldie of the 1st Battalion The Loyal (North Lancashire) Regiment searches a Malay cyclist on a road near Ipoh for any supplies or material he may be smuggling through to the communist guerillas. © IWM (D 88057)

Emulating the patriotic Wén Tiānxiáng

I found Chin Peng’s revelation fascinating. He was also proud to be able to recite patriotic poems by poet 文天祥 (Wén Tiānxiáng) in the Song Dynasty. Wén Tiānxiáng resisted Kublai Khan’s invasion of the Song Dynasty. He was imprisoned, later went on a hunger strike, and even tried to commit suicide. He adamantly refused an order to write a letter to advise the remaining Song forces to surrender. Wén Tiānxiáng suffered for four years in a military prison until he was executed in 1283, aged 47. The most famous quotation by Wén Tiānxiáng is:

“人生自古谁无死,留取丹心照汗青。”

From 《过零丁洋》(Passing Lingdingyang) by 文天祥 (Wén Tiānxiáng)

My translation:

“Can human beings ever escape death? My patriotism shines upon the history records forever.”

Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1924 in Guangzhou

Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1924 in Guangzhou (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The astonishingly insightful interview with Chin Peng is being serialised in Kwong Wah Daily 光华日报, the world’s longest-lasting Chinese newspaper. Kwong Wah Daily was established on the 20th of December in 1910 by the father of modern China Dr. Sun Yat-sen in Penang, who moved his Southeast Asia revolutionary base from Singapore to Penang in August 1910.

Three members of the Royal Air Force Regiment on foot patrol in Georgetown the capital of Penang, Malaya. © IWM (CI 1665)

Three members of the Royal Air Force Regiment on foot patrol in Georgetown the capital of Penang, Malaya. © IWM (CI 1665)

Dr. Sun Yat-sen and his wars from Malaya

How significant was Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s role in Malaya? At around 1905, Dr. Sun was active in Malaya, visiting the large Overseas Chinese community and gathering support for his revolutionary activities in China. On November 13, 1910, Sun Yat-sen held the Penang Conference with leading figures of the United League (Tongmenghui) to draw up plans for a battle in Guangzhou known as the Yellow Flower Mound revolt against the Qing Dynasty. The revolt failed. Only 72 bodies of the revolutionaries were discovered, who were named martyrs in the modern Chinese history. 

Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s failed revolt sprouted from Penang later prompted Wuchang Uprising on 10 Oct 1911, regarded as the catalyst to the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty.  Dr. Sun served as the provisional president of the Republic of China (1911–12).

“A general’s success was built upon thousands of bleached bones.” War is such a constant theme in the Chinese literature. In his choice of a poem to summarise his life, Chin Peng seemed to appreciate the burden of the human tragedies during his reign as the leader of the Communist Party of Malaya. His death has rekindled fervent discussions on the turbulent years in Malaya’s history. With lofty ideas, he certainly contributed to the liberation of Malaya. He also reminded us of a time in history how conflicting ideologies ended with the eerie scenes of “thousands of bleached bones.”

A watch tower manned by the Malayan Home Guard protects a railway bridge from sabotage by Communist guerrillas.

A watch tower manned by the Malayan Home Guard protects a railway bridge from sabotage by Communist guerrillas. © IWM (K 14430)

The Chin Peng series was inspired by Blog Exercises: What story should I share? by Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.


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25 thoughts on “Chin Peng’s favourite poems

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    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you Carl. I’m very encouraged by all your comments to continue this series of posts. I am pleased so many of you are as intrigued by the history of the Far East as I am.

      Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you Shimon. It is a luxury for me to share these stories here from the comfort of my lounge, from the very country that destroyed Chin Peng’s forces. In those years, it was a savage war. I think Chin Peng is worth mentioning as some people believed he possibly was the man that had ended an ‘era’ in counterinsurgency.

      Reply
  5. chennicole2013

    I love Cao Song’s famous war poem. I believe that we honor soldiers too often. It’s true, they risk their lives for their countries, and many are honorable, good men. (My dad was a soldier.) But a soldier’s business is death. I would rather honor people for their contribution to life. (My dad was also a carpenter who built many beautiful houses.)

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Hi Nicki,

      There are so much to learn and to imagine through these war poems. Death, longing and separation, glory. If only human beings could learn from history and do not repeat mistakes in the past. If only we valued the sacrifices of the living and the dead.

      Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      I used ‘bleached bones’, but literally it was ‘10,000 bones dry’. How could the bones be dried? They were exposed and bleached under the sun. What do yo think, my poet friend? If you have a better translation, please let me know.

      Reply
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  7. Lorelle VanFossen

    I love the stark violence in the beautiful words, and how people tend to not only rewrite history in their favor but twist beautiful poetry around to serve them. Fascinating insights. Thank you!

    Reply
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