This poem was written in 764.
It is the second year of the reign of Emperor Daizong, 代宗. The rebel forces of General An Lushan Rebellion have been turned back, but now the armies of the Tang Dynasty face Tibetan forces on the west, about to invade China and capture the capital of Chang’an.
Yuan Jie (元結, 719–772) fought early during the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763). The year before this poem was written, he was appointed governor of Dao County (Daozhou), Hunan Province. There the people were reduced to eating grass roots and tree bark as a result war, pillaging, looting, and the excessive tax collections of rice and wheat.
The Tibetans threatened to invade, but so too did another evil force.
Yuan Jie explains:
In the year Guimao (the Year of the Rabbit), bandits (Tibetans) from their camp at Xiyuan entered Daozhou (Dao Prefecture 道州), setting fire, raiding, looting, and killing. The entire district was devastated. In the second year, the culprits attacked Yongzhou and occupied Shaozhou, but left Daozhou alone. Not because we were strong enough to defend ourselves, but because they pitied us. Now, how our own imperial commissioners bear to impose more taxes?
The Thief Who Returns is the Tax Collector
The old days were peaceful, twenty years in the mountains and forests.
A spring in my courtyard, a cave my front door.
Field taxes were fixed and light, in the twilight one could sleep.
Now, the world has changed, for years beneath bloody banners I fought.
Today, I am a county official, and western barbarians gather again.
Small time thieves do not slaughter, a poor man whose hurt should be pitied.
Surrounded by neighbors, this county was left intact.
But a tax collector is just like a thief?
Today’s conquerors compel one like oil on fire.
Can one who kills, in time achieve a virtuous life?
Thinking and hoping, with this verse, to push with a pole and prick the boat.
Let us then, return as before, to a land of rivers and lakes
Notes on Translation
Of course, Yuan Jie could not personally criticize Emperor Daizong for the people’s plight.
So, he titled his poem, 贼退示官吏, (Zéi tuì shì guān lì) which translates as “The returning thief is the official (tax collector)”. Yuan did indirectly get a jibe in at the emperor, quoting the Confucian dictum that a wise emperor “listens to his people and cares for his people.” Yuan uses the character 贤, xián, meaning virtuous, knowing that Emperor Daizong is familiar with Confucius’ dictum.
Although Yuan Jie was a contemporary of Li Bai and Du Fu, he is for the most part ignored by western translators. As the poem indicates, Yuan Jie served in the army fighting the rebellion for several years. When the capital of Chang’an was retaken from rebel forces, Yuan Jie was appointed governor of Daozhou. Yongzhou, Shaozhou, and Daozhou referenced are part of the Circuit of Western Jiangnan (江南西道).
Yuan did not know it when this poem was written, but, in 765, Tang forces would defeat the Tibetans at the Battle of Xiyuan.
Yuan Jie, and this poem in particular, is much admired in China. The idea of a dedicated official fighting corruption was a popular theme in Mao Zedong’s Communist China. Indeed, Mao himself was from Hunan. Mao’s other connection with Yuan Jie is that he too lived for a time in a Hunan cave.
Yuan Jie’s poem remains popular today.
In a companion poem, Song of Chongling (舂陵行), Yuan Jie described what starving people ate — “the morning meal is grass roots, supper tree bark” (朝餐是草根，暮食乃樹皮)
I admit that my translation is rusty, even questionable.
If I were to translate this poem to French, it would begin like this:
Les vieux jours étaient paisibles, vingt ans dans les montagnes et les bois.
Une source de montagne dans ma cour, une grotte ma porte.
Les impôts étaient peu, on pouvait dormir la nuit.
Mais le monde a changé, pendant des années je me suis battu.
Maintenant, je suis un fonctionnaire du comté, et les barbares se rassemblent à nouveau.
Les petits voleurs ne massacrent pas, un pauvre homme dont il faut se plaindre.