Translating a War Banner

Introduction

As I watched a friend play the ninja videogame Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I noticed this inscription on an enemy samurai’s war banner:

有死之荣,无生之辱

Source and Translation

A rough translation of just this phrase is:

Having the honor of death, not the shame of life

This quotation comes from the Wuzi, a Chinese military classic by Wu Qi, a Legalist philosopher who lived during the Warring States period. He was a military leader in Wei and, later, a politician in Chu.

The full quote, reproduced below, is a sentence which concludes the first passage of the section 论将 Lùnjiàng.

故师出之日,有死之荣,无生之辱。

I haven’t read the full passage yet, but a rough translation is:

Therefore, on the day that soldiers are dispatched, have the honor of death, not the shame of life.

Here I classify 有 and 无 as imperatives (“have!” / “don’t have!”), and the characters after them as Noun-Genitive-Noun constructs (e.g. 死之容 “death GEN honor” “the honor of death”.)

For those who are not Chinese scholars, I’ll note that Classical Chinese used vertical1 formatting and no punctuation marks, as shown in this Chinese Text Project image of a physical copy of the Wuzi. In addition, the Wuzi was written in “traditional characters” (I won’t explain that phrase here), so some of the characters in this phrase would have been written differently. In particular, 无 above would be 無, 师 would be 師, and 荣 would be 榮. Putting it all together, here’s what it would have looked like on the original wooden strips:

故師出之日有死之榮無生之辱

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  1. In the Republic of Taiwan, vernacular literature is still written vertically to this day (though horizontal text is also used, and I don’t know the relative abundance of each style.)