Li Shen – Pity the Farmers

Pity the Farmer, Air 1

A single grain of wheat sewn in spring
By autumn ten thousand brings
If in all the world no field lies fallow
Why then are hungry peasants dying

Pity the Farmer, Air 2

Hoeing grain at noon
Sweat dripping on the soil
Who knows, the food you eat
Grain by grain, is hard and bitter?

Pity the Farmers 悯 农

This post is a rewrite of Li Shen’s well-known poem about the plight of the Chinese farmer in the Tang dynasty.

Li wrote two poems on the subject of the Chinese farmer, for convenience sake, referred to as Ancient Airs 1 and 2. The second poem is often recited by children in their school cafeteria.

Li Shen 李紳

Li Shen (李紳, 772?-846) lived in the troubled decades following the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763). Even though the rebels were defeated, the damage to the countryside had been done, and there was no peace. Regional warlords rose up and court conspiracies challenged the emperor for control.

Mǐn nóng (Pity the peasant )” was heard throughout the land.

Li had a long and distinguished career in the Imperial court, serving five different emperors, being made governor of various regions. In 837, while he was military governor of Xuanwu Circuit (in modern Henan province) China suffered a widespread locust infestation which somehow avoided his district. He was later appointed chancellor to the Emperor Wuzong.

In 844 he suffered a stroke and resigned.

Notes on translation

Zhǒng 種 in the first poem means seed, and 禾 in the second, to cereal grain in general. Although Westerners jump to the conclusion that all Chinese eat rice ( 米), actually it is noodles (wheat, 稞) in the north, and rice in the south. The fact that the farmers are hoeing suggests wheat.

Nóngfū 農夫 in the first poem meaning peasant, but also peasant farmer. The second poem is a children’s riddle. Some translators add farmer to the first line, but the poem simply starts with “Hoeing grain at noon,” building clue upon clue, until the child realizes the work and toil that goes into a plate of food.
粒, the double lì lì, means grain by grain, each grain…
xīnkǔ 辛苦, separately, xīn meaning hard, implying with much suffering, and , bitter, together meaning, with much toil

Chinese and Pinying #1

Chūn zhǒng yī lì sù
qiūshōu wàn kē zi
sìhǎi wú xián tián
nóngfū yóu èsǐ

春種一粒粟
秋收萬顆子
四海無閑田
農夫猶餓死

Chinese and Pinyin #2

Chú hé yuē dāng wǔ
hàn dī hé xià tǔ
shéi zhī pán zhōngcān
lì lì jiē xīnkǔ

锄禾曰当午
汗滴禾下土
谁知盘中餐
粒粒皆辛苦

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