Take pity on the Farmer – Li Shen

This is the second of Li Shen’s poems on the dire conditions of Chinese farmers during the Tang dynasty.

Li Shen served as a chancellor during the reign of Emperor Wuzong, and the question has been asked, why he did not do more to alleviate conditions for the peasants. Rebellion, floods, famine, and bad governance all played a part in the eventual dissolution of the Tang dynasty which occurred roughly 50 years after Li Shen’s death in 846.

Take pity on the farmer
Li Shen
In Spring, a single grain of millet sown
Come Autumn, a million off-spring makes
In all China, not a field lies fallow
So why do farmers starve to death

Original Chinese

悯农
春種一粒粟
秋收萬顆子
四海無閑田
農夫猶餓死

agriculture-china

Li Shen’s other poem has more resonance.

Pity the Peasant
Hoeing cereal in the midday sun
His sweat drops and nourishes the grain and the earth
But few people know his supper
Is nothing but hard work

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Pity the Farmer (Peasant)

Pity the Peasant
Hoeing cereal in the midday sun
His sweat drops and nourishes the grain and the earth
But few people know his supper
Is nothing but hard work

Li Shen’s poem is usually titled Pity the Farmer. Parents teach this poem to their  children to remind them to eat everything on their plate. Sound familiar?

agriculture-china

Original Chinese

悯 农

鋤禾日當午
汗滴禾下土
誰知盤中飧
粒粒皆辛苦

Title

The original Chinese title is:

悯 农

And it is often translated as Toiling Farmers. This does not seem to me an adequate translation. First of all, , is literally the Chinese character for “pity” and Li Shen, the poet, is using his poem as a supplication. Take sorrow on, or take pity for the peasant who puts food on your table. The second character , translates as either farmer or peasant. I like peasant for obvious social and phonetic reasons. Then again, Mao’s Communist Revolution extolled the peasant, so maybe farmer is the better choice.

Rhyme

The rhyme is aaba.

The pinyin translation:

Chú hé rì dāng wǔ
hàn dī hé xià tǔ
shuí zhī pán zhōng sūn
lì lì jiē xīn kǔ

The verse

is the Chinese character for cereal grain. The character is used in both the first and second lines, but I have chosen to vary the word selection because Li Shen intends to convey the meaning of all cereal grains and not just one type of grain like rice or wheat.

Literally, the last line should be “each and every granule is hard work.” It begins with the repetition of  , which suggests to me that the peasant struggles mightily to grow and harvest each and every granule. And ends with 辛 苦, which can be interpreted as bitter work or hard work.

I suppose the child gets the point that the peasant does not always eat or that the fruits of his labor are sometimes bitter.

French Translation