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

Farmhouse on the Wei River, Wang Wei 王 維

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.

渭川田家

斜光照墟落

窮巷牛羊歸

野老念牧童

倚杖候荊扉

雉雊麥苗秀

蠶眠桑葉稀

田夫荷鋤立

相見語依依

即此羨閒逸

悵然吟式微

又作至

Wèi chuāntián jiā
xié guāngzhào xū luò
qióng xiàng niú yáng guī
yělǎo niàn mùtóng
yǐ zhàng hòu jīng fēi
zhì gòu màimiáo xiù
cán mián sāng yè xī
tiánfū hè chú lì
xiāng jiàn yǔ yīyī
jí cǐ xiàn xián yì
chàngrán yín shìwēi
yòu zuò zhì

china bike alongside river and mountains

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

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