Fun with Tang Dynasty Poetry: "The Elderly Charcoal Seller"

Wen Sige

PureInsight | September 5, 2005


The Elderly Charcoal Seller
By Bai Juyi

Cutting wood and burning charcoal in the forests of the Southern Mountain.
His face, stained with dust and ashes, has turned to the color of smoke.
The hair on his temples is streaked with gray: his ten fingers are black.
The money he gets by selling charcoal, how far does it go?
It is just enough to clothe his limbs and put food in his mouth.
Although, alas, the coat on his back is a coat without lining,
He hopes for the coming of cold weather, to send up the price of charcoal!
Last night, outside the city, a whole foot of snow;
At dawn he drives the charcoal wagon along the frozen ruts.
Ox was weary; man was hungry; the sun was already high;
Outside the Gate, to the south of the Market, at last they stop in the mud.
Suddenly, a pair of prancing horsemen. Who can be coming?
A public official in a yellow coat and a boy in a white shirt.
In their hands they hold a written warrant: on their tongues, the words of an order;
They turn back the wagon and curse the ox, leading them off to the north.
A whole wagon of charcoal,
More than a thousand catties!
If officials choose to take it away, the charcoal seller may not complain.
Half a piece of red silk and a single yard of damask,
The Courtiers have passed over the ox's head, as the price of a wagon of charcoal!

"The Elderly Charcoal Seller" in Chinese



About Bai Juyi

Bai Juyi, also known as Bai Letian, was a renowned poet during the Tang Dynasty. He lived from 772 to 846 AD. The less educated people at that time could easily understand the language used in his poems, with their explicit themes. The poems flowed so smoothly and his poetic style was so unique that it became a literary form commonly known as Fundamentally Plain Form (元白體.)

Bai Juyi excelled in different forms of poetry, especially narrative and lengthy poems. Among his best works are: "Song of Eternal Sorrow" (長恨歌), which is a long poem describing the rise and downfall of the famed beauty Royal Concubine Yang Yuhuan (楊玉環) and "Song of the Pipa Player" (琵琶行) about a pear-shaped Chinese lute. Throughout the ages, poetry critics have eulogized "Song of Eternal Sorrow" as an extremely beautiful poem.

An Explanation of the Words

During the mid-Tang Dynasty, eunuchs seized power in the royal court. They even obtained the authority to make purchases for the royal palace, which gave them the opportunity to make huge profits at the expenses of poor civilians. Bai Juyi revealed the despicable nature of the "palace market" run by the eunuchs and condemned the eunuchs' ruthless treatment of the poor civilians in this famous satirical poem. To the present day, readers can feel Bai Juyi's genuine concern for the poor and his compassion.

The Author's Interpretation
The elderly man with gray hair on his temples was supposed to retire and rest at home, but he had to go up on the mountain to chop wood and burn charcoal in the middle of the winter. One can easily imagine the old man must be suffering from poverty and had to endure a lot of hardship. In the middle of the winter, he wore a thin jacket without any lining while working on the mountain. How could he possibly resist the sub-zero temperature on a high altitude in the winter? However, the old man wished the weather to turn even colder so that he might be able to fetch a better price for the charcoal!

It appeared that God granted his wish. It snowed one foot of snow overnight. He and his ox left home early morning and struggled to go to the imperial capital with a whole wagon of charcoal on the frozen ground. While struggling on the bumpy and rock hard road, he was harboring a great anticipation to sell the charcoal at a fair price! He produced a whole wagon of charcoal after many long months of chopping wood and burning it manually on the mountain. The whole year of his food and clothes depended on the sale of this wagon of charcoal. He and his ox walked from sunrise to noon and they finally got the wagon of charcoal to the market in the southern imperial city. His ox was exhausted and the old man was very hungry. When they finally parked the wagon in the mud catching their breath, two Courtiers from the imperial palace appeared and took the whole wagon of charcoal back to the imperial palace. They put half a piece of red silk and a single yard of damask over the ox's head as the payment for a whole wagon of charcoal! How could the old man complain when the two Courtiers claimed the order came from the palace? Bai Juyi didn't say what the old man was thinking or how he responded, but one thing is for sure: the poor old man would definitely not be able to survive a year with half a piece of red silk and a single yard of damask!

Although, alas, the coat on his back is a coat without lining,
He hopes for the coming of cold weather, to send up the price of charcoal!

Even to this day, readers are brought to tears when reading this poem. This poem shows Bai Juyi's genuine concern for the poor and their sufferings, as well as his compassion for the impoverished and less fortunate. In fact, it is Bai Juyi's contagious compassion that makes this poem such a powerful work of art. Even after 1,000 years, "The Elderly Charcoal Seller" remains one of the most popular Chinese poems.

The most commendable aspect of Bai Juyi's character is, while he was deeply concerned and sympathetic toward the poor, and he often looked inward and criticized himself for leading a luxurious life. Out of his concern and compassion for the poor, Bai Juyi wrote more satirical poems than any other poet in Chinese history. In his later years, Bai Juyi became a cultivator and led a simple, frugal life. It appears that it is his compassion that gradually led him to cultivation in Buddhism.

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