Trần Quốc Tuấn – Exhortation to the Military Officers

hich tuong si

Trần Quốc Tuấn (陳國峻 , 1228-1300) was a prince and general of the Trần dynasty (陳朝 , 1225-1400). He is better known as Trần Hưng Đạo (陳興道), after his royal title, Hưng Đạo Vương (興道王). His famous exhortation to Vietnamese generals on the eve of a Mongol invasion is among the most celebrated works of Classical Chinese writing in Vietnamese history. This work has been previously translated twice into English. One translation, by professor Trương Bửu Lâm (張寶琳 , ?-?) I have yet to obtain. The other translation, readily available on the Internet was “translated and adopted” by George F. Schultz. I suspect that the latter translation was based on a either a Vietnamese translation or paraphrase of the original Classical Chinese. Schultz’s translation, while more or less faithful to the general content of the text, deviates from the original Chinese in many areas, sometimes leaving out details, sometimes using extraneous vocabulary (for example, the term “Motherland” which does not appear anywhere in the original text), and sometimes translating something completely wrong. Once again, I have decided to present first my translation and then add to the annotations at a later point. This translation I based on the original Chinese text, compared against several Vietnamese translations.

This post is divided into the following sections:

I. Original text
II. English Translation
III. Notes
IV. Translator’s Commentary





Exhortation to the Military Officers

Oft have I heard of Ji Hsin who delivered himself unto death that Emperor Han Kao-ti might escape; of You Yu who, taking a spear to the back, shielded lord Chao; of Yu Jang who, swallowing smoldering ashes, avenged his lord. Shen K’uai dismembered his arm, rescuing his kingdom from disaster. Ching Te, a young boy, charged forth, delivering Emperor Tang Tai-tsung from encirclement of Wang Shih Ch’ung. Kao Ch’ing, a distant subject, rebuked Lu Shan as a rebel and refused to follow his villainous insurrection. From of old, loyal subjects and righteous officers have sacrificed their lives for their kingdoms. What age has been without such men? Had they been feeble and lowly with the bearing of women and girls, in vain they would have passed away at home. How could their names have been passed down on bamboo scrolls and fine silk to endure forever incorrupt with Heaven and Earth?

You men hail from military families. Having no comprehension of letters and records, upon hearing such stories you harbor doubts against their veracity. Let discussion of ages past cease. I speak now of events pertaining to the Song and Mongols. What sort of man was Wang Gong Chien? What sort of man was his subordinate, Juan Shan Li, that together defending the puny fortress of Tiao Yu, they repelled Mongke’s immense horde of a million men? The Song people to this day are still graced with their blessings. What sort of man was Uriyangqatai? What kind of man was his subordinate Ch’ih Hsiu Ssu that they charged through ten-thousand miles of deadly miasmas, crushing the Nan Chao ruffians in a matter of weeks? Till now, Mongol chieftains still remember their names.

How much more you and I, having been born into a tumultuous age, reaching manhood in a time of trials and tribulation. We have seen with our own eyes, false ambassadors bustling to and fro unhindered, filling the road and pathways. With the tongues of unclean birds they shame and humiliate the imperial court. Relying on their arms, these dogs and goats arrogantly disgrace high officials. Under the order of Kublai, they demand jade and silk to satiate their boundless avarice. Feigning lordship over Yun-nan, their demand for gold and silver has wiped clean our limited coffers. Compliance is like waiving meat before a ravenous tiger; how could we be spared from future calamity?

I have continually forgotten my meal while sitting down to eat; in the dead of night I beat my pillow, with tears streaming down in pain, my heart and bowels are as if tossed about. Constantly, I regret having not yet eaten the enemies flesh, slept on his skin, chewed his bowels, and drunken his blood. Even should my corpse be exposed a hundred times in the wild grasslands, even should my corpse be wrapped in horse-hide a thousand times, I would still desire thusly. You men have long dwelt within my gates, together with me holding command over the army. He who was without clothes, I gave to wear. He who was without food, I gave to eat. He whose rank was low, I promoted. He whose payment was poor, I increased. To those traveling by water I provided boats; to those traveling by land, I provided horses. With you I braved the battlefield, together risking life and death. In leisure, our talk and laughter resounded with shared joy. What inferiority have we when compared to Gong Chien and Uriyangqatai and their subordinates?

You men sit watching your lord disgraced yet are not moved to worry. The kingdom’s humiliation bears down on your own persons, yet you know no shame. You are generals of the realm but are not angered and resentful that you must wait upon barbarians. You hear the ritual Thái-thường music played at banquets welcoming false ambassadors and your complexions are not moved with fury. Some turn to cockfighting for joy. Some find pleasure in gambling. Some tend to their fields and gardens in order to provide for their families. Others yet attached to their wives and children further only their selfish interests. Improving your own personal ventures, you forget your duties to the army and kingdom. You are extravagant with pleasure outings and hunts through your fields yet lax in training for attack and defense. Some are satisfied with fine wine, others with lewd music. Should the Mongol horde suddenly invade, your rooster’s spurs will not be enough to pierce the invader’s armor. Your gambling ruses will not be enough to execute military strategy. The prosperity of your fields and gardens will not be sufficient to redeem your priceless lives. Attachment to your wife and children will be of no use to the army and kingdom. The abundance of your wealth will be insufficient to purchase the invader’s head. The strength of your hunting hounds will not be enough against the enemy’s numbers. Fine wine will be unable to intoxicate the invader’s soldiers, lewd music insufficient to deafen their ears. At that time, should the servants and masters of my estate be captured it would already be unbearably painful. But not only my fief would be taken, your own official’s salaries would become the possession of other men. Not only would my wife and children be pursued, your own wife and children would become the captives of other men. Not only would the realm of my ancestors be trampled and violated by other men, but the graves of your own parents would be dug up. Not only would I be humiliated in this life, and for a hundred generations hence be disgraced with an indelibly stained reputation, leaving behind an ignominious name for all eternity; the good reputation of your own families would not be spared from being disgraced as defeated generals. At that time, should you desire happiness and content would you be able to obtain it?

I now tell you clearly: Take care as one stacking logs by a burning fire; be cautious as one who having been burned by hot soup blows even on his greens. Instruct and train your officers with bow and arrow, that all may be the equals of Peng Meng and Hou Yi. We will skewer Kublai’s head and hang it from the gates of the imperial palace. Hogedi’s carcass will be left to rot at Kao Chieh. Not only will my fief be evermore secure, you will receive your official’s salaries for the rest of your lives. Not only will my wife and children be secure in their beds and blankets, your own wife and children will be able to grow old together. Not only will my ancestral temple receive sacrificial offerings for ten-thousand generations, your own forefathers will be venerated in the spring and autumn rites. Not only will my purpose be fulfilled in this life, your good reputations will also be passed down incorrupt for a hundred generations. Not only will my posthumous title be forever passed down, your own clan names and personal names will leave behind their fragrance in the annals of history. At that time, though you might desire to be without happiness and content, would you be to avoid it?

I have now made selections from annals of military arts coming from the various schools. These I have compiled into book entitled “Principles of Military Strategy”. If you are able to study this book and practice its principles, receiving my commands, it must be because we were lord and subject in the previous life. If you despise and abandon this book, violating my commands, it must be that we were enemies in the previous life. Why? The Mongols are enemies with whom we cannot share the same sky. If you remain complacent and do not think of washing away this shame, if your hearts are not set on ridding evil and training your soldiers, it is as if you cast away your weapons in surrender, facing the enemy empty-handed. After the invaders are leveled, this shame would be passed down for ten-thousand generations. What face would you then have to stand between Heaven and Earth?

Wishing for you to know my heart, I have written this exhortation.



– You Jang (豫讓 , Dự Nhượng) swallowed burning coals to distort his voice, hence allowing him to disguise himself on a mission to assassinate the killer of his lord

– Lu Shan (祿山, Lộc Sơn) refers to An Lu-shan (安祿山 , An Lộc Sơn) a Tang dynasty general (703-757) who led a devastating rebellion in 755

– Peng Meng (逄蒙 , Bàng Mông) , Hou Yi (后羿 , Hậu Nghệ), were famous archers of antiquity

– “burned by hot soup…” (懲羹吹虀 , trừng canh xuy tê) is a reference to the Songs of C’hu (楚辭 , Sở từ): “Burned by hot soup I blow my greens” (懲於羹而吹虀兮 , trừng ư canh nhi xuy tê hề)

– Kao Chieh (藁街 , Cảo Nhai) was the area reserved for the rulers of ambassador kingdoms to stay upon visiting the Han dynasty capital, Chang  An (長安 , Trường An)


Translator’s Commentary

It is important to note that much more so than the Great Proclamation of Nguyễn Trãi recently translated and posted on this blog, this work is most definitely not an “anti-Chinese” document. The use of terms such as “false ambassador” (偽使 , ngụy sứ) assumes that there must be a “legitimate” ambassador. Undoubtedly, the author’s indignation was due in no small part to the fact that a civilized kingdom like Vietnam was facing threat from the Mongols, a people looked down upon as uncivilized barbarians by essentially everyone in the Sinosphere. Interestingly, a later official of the Trần dynasty, Phạm Sư Mạnh (范師孟 , ?-?) wrote a poem congratulating an ambassador from the Ming court that ends with the lines:


Đại Minh kim nhật đô Giang Tả
Hồ vận nguy vong Hán vận xương

The great Ming now sets up capital south of the Changjiang river
The barbarian fortunes are in decline, the Han prospering


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