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

It’s cold, 已涼

Chinese woman in scarlet dress with fan

It’s Cold
Through her blue green door
Past the scarlet screen full of flowers and blossoms
Lies a brocaded quilt of an eight-foot dragon beard
It is cool but not yet cold

The poem’s meaning

It is autumn and that means falling leaves of red and gold, cold fronts and cool air. The first frost has not come, so that the flowers continue to bloom and the vegetables ripen. Remember when it was spring and love was new. Then summer and love was hot.

Now it is autumn, and our love has cooled (涼 yǐ ), but not yet cold (寒 hán). And we both know, it is time to say goodbye.

Dragon’s Beard

I could and will speculate on the dragon’s beard that Han Wo weaves into the bed spread. Surely, the beard of the dragon had some mythical property, now forgotten. It was also a popular candy confection, originating during the Han dynasty, similar to our cotton candy, and quite ephemeral, when the temperature was hot.

While I am at it, let’s talk numbers. Han Wo chose an eight-foot beard. Eight is a lucky number in Chinese, similar to the word ‘Fa’, which means to make a fortune, so maybe, Han Wo was hoping to get lucky that night.

Han Wo (Han Wu)

Han Wo (韩偓 Han Wu, 842–844 – 923) survived the end of the Tang dynasty (907); and, so, represents a closing bookend to poetry of the Tang dynasty. His father was acquainted with poet Li Shangyin, and it is said that Li recognized Han Wo’s poetic gift at an early age.

Original Chinese

已涼

碧闌干外繡簾垂
猩色屏風畫折枝
八尺龍鬚方錦褥
已涼天氣未寒時

Pinyin

Yǐ liáng

Bìlán gān wài xiù lián chuí
xīng sè píngfēng huà zhézhī
bā chǐ lóng xū fāng jǐn rù
yǐ liáng tiānqì wèi hán shí

Autumn Air, Li Bai

moon, boat, water, Li Bai

The autumn air is clear,
The autumn moon is bright,
Leaves that have fallen gather and scatter,
Jackdaws roosts and start anew.
Yearning for each other, when shall we meet again?
It is hard to love this night

Qiū fēng qīng,
Qiū yuè míng,

Luò yè jù huán sàn,
Hán yā qī fù jīng.
Xiāng sī xiāng jiàn zhī hé rì?
Cĭ shí cĭ yè nán wéi qíng!

秋 风 清
秋 月 明
落 叶 聚 还 散
寒 鸦 栖 复 惊
相 思 相 见 知 何 日
此 时 此 夜 难 为 情

The Sublime

I suppose that it is the purpose of all great poetry to express the sublime. By sublime is meant the grandeur of the moment, the ineffable expression of an emotion that defies expression. For Li Bai, the moment was a clear, bright autumn evening, perfect in every way, except for the pain felt when two lovers were parted.

And the ridiculous; or, alas, it is hard to translate Chinese

Li Bai’s poignant homage to two lovesick lovers, each one under a bright autumn moon, each feeling the clear autumn air, but separated, like fallen leaves briefly coming together and scattering again, like jackdaws, stealing moments together then parting.

Translating Chinese characters into English is a difficult problem. Grammar plays a part. Take for example, the first two lines. I will use pinyin to illustrate the point.

Qiū fēng qīng,
Qiū yuè míng,

Li Bai uses but three characters while English requires the use of ten, adding both articles and a verb to convey a complete sentence. I suppose, the translator could say, “Clear autumn air” and “Bright autumn moon” are not familiar English constructions.

I need not mention the obvious loss of rhyme and rhythm that naturally occurs in translations that retain the original meaning.

Like English combining one Chinese character with another often creates a unique meaning. In English, fire and house, means something quite different from firehouse. Like wise, in Chinese. Take the first tow characters in fifth line of Li Bai’s poem, 相 思, Xiāng sī. Literally, one gets cold crow, but the combined meaning is jackdaw, a bird that is known for its thieving habits in building a nest. Had the translator chosen crow or raven, the poem would lose the sense of two lovers stealing moments together.

Sometimes, the translator must abandon the literal Chinese to get the sense of the poem. The last line of Li Bai’s poem starts out with 此 时 , Cĭ shí , literally, at this time. It is followed by 此 夜 , cĭ yè, this night, and ending with 难 为 情, nán wéi qíng, which most translators interpret as hard or difficult. Li Bai’s rhyme and rhythm are nice, but in English it sounds better, and is closer to the poet’s intent to say, “It is hard to love this night.”

Li Bai, The Four Seasons, Ballads

Li Bai has created a series of four love ballads set to the four seasons. The subject is women, the theme is love, devotion, and longing.

12th c. copy of work by zhang xuan, detail
Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk, Zhang Xuan (12th c. copy)

The Four Seasons

In Spring, the lovely Lo Fo of the western land of Chin plucks mulberry leaves by the blue waterside, her white arms gleam against the green boughs… In Summer, On Mirror Lake spread out for miles and miles, blossoming lotus lily flowers teem… In Autumn, a crescent moon hangs over Chang’an, and ten thousand wives are pounding clothes…In Winter, she’s told the courier departs next day, so she sews a warrior’s gown all night.

Spring

The ballad of Spring is an abbreviated version of an earlier Yuefu poem (樂府, folk song) “Mulberries along the field” (陌上桑). Li Bai pays homage to the chaste and loyal Lo Fo (Lo Fuo) of the Land of Chin (Qin) . “The land of Chin” in mid-western China is the ancient state and short-lived first imperial dynasty (221 to 206 B.C) from which Europeans created the name China.

Summer

Summer’s ballad, tells the tale of Xi Shi (西施), literally “(Lady) Shi of the West”, 506 BC – ?).

One of the renowned Four Beauties of ancient China, Xi Shi became a pawn in a plan by King Goujian of Yue to seek revenge over King Fuchai of Wu. Fuchai had previously defeated Goujian and made him a prisoner before releasing him. Now free, King Fuchai offered Xi Shi as a gift to King Goujian. Her beauty bewitched the king and he neglected his duties. Eventually, King Goujian had his revenge and defeated Fuchai. After the fall of Wu, King Goujian’s minister Fan Li retired and, according to legend, lived in the misty waters of Lake Taihu.

Autumn

Autumn ballad, takes us west to the Gate of Yumen, Yumenguan (玉門 關).

This dry and dusty pass at the far western frontier served as a strategic fort along the ancient Silk Road. It derives its name from the jade that passed through its walls. It came under control of the Han Dynasty (China’s second imperial dynasty, 206 BC – 220 AD, following the Qin Dynasty).

Winter

Winter’s ballad is finally here.

Perhaps, Li Bai has taken us to the present.

The An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) has broken out. Northern tribes rebelled against the authority of the Tang Dynasty and invaded China. The rebels are advancing on the Tang capital of Chang’an.

A doting wife is told the courier departs next day for the north, so she sews a warrior’s gown all night.

zhou fang, ladies playing double sixes, freer gallery of art
Ladies playing double sixes, Zhou Fang

Li Bai’s Ballads of Four Seasons: Autumn

Chang’an is lit by a crescent moon and
From ten thousand homes comes the sound of cloth-pounding
While an autumn wind blows endlessly,
For those who guard the Gate at Yumenguan.
Who knows when peace will be made with the northern Hu?
So good men may return from long marches.

Yumenguan, Jade Gate

長安一片
萬戶搗衣聲
秋風吹不盡
總是玉關情
何日平胡虜
良人罷遠征


Cháng’ān yīpiàn yuè
wàn hù dǎo yī shēng
qiū fēngchuī bù jìn
zǒng shì yù guān qíng
hérìpíng hú lǔ
liáng rén bà yuǎnzhēng

Li Bai’s Ballads of Four Seasons

In Spring, the lovely Lo Foh picks mulberry leaves for her silk worms while she disarms the advances of a Prince. In Summer, Xi Shi, China’s Beauty gathers lotus blossoms in May. In Autumn, a sliver of a moon hangs high over Chang’an while soldiers guard Yumenguan Pass. In Winter, a loving wife can hardly hold her needle and thread while she stitches a warm cloak for her warrior husband.

These are the Four Seasons and the Four Ballads of Li Bai.

In this poem, Autumn, Li Bai returns to Chinese history, hearkening back to the reign of Emperor Wu, seventh emperor of the Han dynasty who ruled from 131- 87, a record of 54 years, not surpassed for almost 1,800 years. Emperor Wu led Han China through its greatest expansion. At its height, extending the Empire’s borders north and west to Mongolia and modern Kyrgyzstan, Korea in the east, and Vietnam in the south.

In the North, Emperor Wu faced off against the northern “barbarians”, but this term did not exist in China. Instead, Li Bai refers to he Hu people 胡虜, Hu lu. This ancient people were also known as the Xiongnu. Wu used varying policies of appeasement, marriage, and ultimately war to fight them off.

Li Bai wrote this series of Ballads during the insurrection of General An Lushan, whose rebellion against the Tang dynasty began in 755 with disastrous consequences.

Yumenguan

Every Chinese reader of Li Bai’s poetry, then and now, was and is familiar with Yumenguan, 玉門關, the Jade Gate. This remote post marked the western extent of Chinese control. The name derives from the precious jade carried through its gate. 遠征, yuǎnzhēng, I translate as a long march, also an expedition, campaign would also fit.
Li Bai resting
Li Bai

Crescent Moon

Li Bai hangs a crescent moon, 一片月, Yīpiàn yuè, over Chang’an, the capital of the Tang dynasty. One could have used the literal translation, a piece, or the poetically assonant “sliver” with shines, but I like the image of a crescent moon over Chang’an. It conveys the dire image that Chang’an and the Tang dynasty were hanging on by a thread during An Lushan’s rebellion.
crescent moon Chinese 一片月
Crescent moon, Chinese, 一片月

Clearing Rain, Du Fu (杜甫)

In Tianshui, the autumn clouds are thin,
The western wind having blown ten thousand li.
This morning’s view is clear and fine,
Long rains do not harm the land.
A row of willows trees begins to green,
The pear tree on the hill has little red buds.
Upstairs, a hujia pipe plays a tune ,
One goose flies high into the sky.

Du Fu, Clearing Rain
spring blossom

Cai Yan, daughter of Cai Yong

In 759, for the brief period of six weeks, Du Fu stayed in the city of Tianshui in Ganshu Province.

While he was there, it is likely that he heard the haunting hujia (literally, reeded pipe of Hu people) and the story of the beautiful Cai Yan (c. 178 – 249, daughter of Cai Yong). She was abducted by the western Xiongnu, married to a chieftain, and held captive for twelve years, bearing two children. Eventually ransomed, she returned to China, but was forced to leave her children behind.

In captivity, while riding on a cart, she heard the mournful reed of the nomads’ pipes, and was moved to compose this poem, which inspired Du Fu, who incorporates the similar sound “yi yan” (一雁, one goose) in the last line of his poem:

Nomad reed pipes softly blowing,
Horses whinnying on the frontier.
Above a solitary goose turns its head,
Its cry is heard, “Ying, ying.”

Chinese characters and pinyin

雨晴(一作秋霁)

天水秋云薄
从西万里风
今朝好晴景
久雨不妨农
塞柳行疏翠
山梨结小红
胡笳楼上发
一雁入高空

yǔ qíng(yī zuò qiū jì)
tiān shuǐ qiū yún báo
cóng xī wàn lǐ fēng
jīn zhāo hǎo qíng jǐng
jiǔ yǔ bù fáng nóng
sāi liǔ háng shū cuì
shān lí jiē xiǎo hóng
hú jiā lóu shàng fā
yī yàn rù gāo kōng


a solitary goose

To Prime Minister Zhang: Looking at Lake Dongting – Meng Haoran

To Prime Minister Zhang: Looking at Lake Dongting

In August (the eighth lunar month), the lake is peaceful,
Boundless waters blend with the sky and
Over the Cloud-Dream Marsh a damp mist rises and
The waves are breaking against the walls of Yueyang City.

I wish to cross the lake, but there is no boat
For me to live an easy life, I would disgrace our brilliant master.
I sit watching the angler cast his line,
Envying him for fishing.

China lake willow tree, mountains in the distance

Meeting Meng Haoran for the first time

In our last poem, we heard from Meng as he was leaving political life.

Here we meet Meng at the beginning of his political career. He is arriving at Lake Dongting on his way to the city Yueyang where he will meet with minister Zhang Jiuling.

Meng’s stint in politics was brief, beginning at the ripe old age of 39 and ending within a year.  Although politics was not his forte, poetry was and Meng managed to make friendships with younger poets such as Wang Wei, Du Fu, and Li Bai. Indeed, the collection of Tang poems has two written by Li Bai addressed to Meng Haoran.

Meng’s poem gives us some insight into why his career was brief.

Lake Dongting

Lake Dongting (洞庭湖) in northeastern Hunan Province is well-known as a flood plain of the Yangtze River. In August, the lake water and blue sky combine in an airy mist. In the morning and in the evening, the sun shining on the watery crystals hanging in the air presents an other worldly view.

Zhang Jiuling

Zhang Jiuling (張丞相) was a minister to Emperor Xuanzong, and himself a noted poet. In line six, Meng explains that living an easy life would bring shame and disgrace on Zhang who is after all a brilliant master 聖明.

Literally the title of the poem is Gazing at Lake Dongting, a gift, 贈, to Prime Minster Zhang, 張丞相. The Pinyin translation reveals the rhyme of the characters (Zèng zhāng chéngxiàng).

Rhyme

aaba baba

Chinese

望洞庭湖贈張丞相

八月湖水平
涵虛混太清
氣蒸雲夢澤
波撼岳陽城

欲濟無舟楫
端居恥聖明
坐觀垂釣者
徒有羨魚情

Pinyin

Wàng dòngtíng hú zèng zhāng chéngxiàng

bā yuè hú shuǐpíng
hán xū hùn tài qīng
qì zhēng yún mèng zé
bō hàn yuèyáng chéng

yù jì wú zhōují
duān jū chǐ shèngmíng
zuò guān chuídiào zhě
tú yǒu xiàn yú qíng

architecture China, wood roof