Wei River Farmhouse The light at dusk cast shadows on the old grave stones The ox and sheep return down the shabby lane In the field an old shepherd reads to his son Leaning on a cane, waiting at the thorny entrance In the wheat stocks, I hear the crow of a ringed neck pheasant Silkworms sleep in the half-eaten mulberry leaves And the farmers return with hoes on their shoulders Greeting each other with familiar words I draw near in envy of their idleness and leisure Regretfully chanting this little poem Ah, to go back again
The Golden Hour
The Tang Dynasty was considered China’s Golden Age. The An Lushuan Rebellion came and went and changed all this and nothing would ever be the same.
Charges of disloyalty were lodged against Wang Wei, but dropped. Wishing to escape the limelight, China’s superstar poet and artist became a devout Buddhist and took time to travel and record nature’s beauty.
The scene – a farm house in poor village along the Wei River. It is the hour before sunset, the golden hour to photographers and poets. It is a magical time when everything takes on a golden hue.
Wang tries to record the scene before the sun sets and all disappears. He is walking down an old lane leaving the village. The slanted light (line one, 斜光) on the gravestones (墟, grave) stir thoughts of his mortality. The ox and sheep shuffle down the shabby lane. In the field is an old shepherd and his son. A pheasant stirs in the wheat. And the farmers idly chat.
The poet nostalgically (line 8, 依依, yīyī ) draws near.
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
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
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?
The original Chinese title is:
And it is often translated as Toiling Farmers. This does not seem to me an adequate translation. First of all, 悯, 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 农, 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.
禾 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 粒, 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.