Fun with Tang Dynasty Poetry: "An Elderly Man in Duling"

Wen Sige

PureInsight | October 3, 2005


An Elderly Man in Duling
By Bai Juyi

An elderly man lives in Duling.
Every year he tends 2.5 acres of poor and barren paddies.
In March there was no rain but there was dry wind.
The wheat sprouts were unable to grow; most of them turned brown and died.
In September the autumn frost arrived early.
Before the wheat crops were ripe, they dried in the shade of green.
The local government officials knew of the weather, but they didn't report to their superiors.
They were anxious to collect heavy taxes in order to get a good evaluation.
The old man sold his silk worms and land to pay the taxes,
But how will he be able to put the food on his table?
You stripped the fabric off my body.
You stole the food from my mouth.
Those who subject people to their tyranny are wolves.
You do not need claws or sharp teeth to devour the citizens' flesh!
I don't know who reported the bad seasons to the emperor.
The kindhearted emperor found out about the truth the government officials were hiding.
The emperor issued a decree on white linen paper,
Ordering the capital city and the neighboring areas to stop collecting taxes.
But the governmental officials didn't show up at the farmers' doors until yesterday.
With the emperor's decree in their hands, they post the order in the farming villages.
Nine out of ten households have already paid the taxes.
We had to give thanks for our emperor's immense grace in vain.

An Elderly Man in Duling in Chinese



About Bai Juyi
Bai Juyi, also known as Bai Letian, was a renowned poet of the Tang Dynasty. He lived from 772 to 846 AD. The less educated people of 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 the 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.

About the Poem
In 808 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Xian Zong of the Tang Dynasty, the region southern of Yangtzi River and the capital city, Chang'an, suffered from a severe drought. Bai Juyi submitted an appeal to the emperor to inform the emperor of the farmers' plight and to ask for a reduction in taxes. Emperor Xianzong approved of Bai Juyi's appeal and issued a decree to waive the tax, but it was actually a fraud. Bai Juyi courageously wrote the poem to reveal the deceitful plot.

The Author's Interpretation
Bai Juyi started the poem by telling the readers about the withered wheat sprouts, the frosted wheat crops shortly before the autumn harvests and the destitution that had befallen the farmers. In order to compete for a good evaluation from their superiors and the chance of promotion, the local government officials were fiercely forcing the farmers who had suffered from the severe drought to pay taxes, even though they knew very well the farmers had had no harvest that year and would have to sell their land in order to pay the taxes. The "kind-hearted" emperor did issue a decree forgiving the taxes for the year. But the local officials didn't announce the emperor's decree until they had collected taxes from nine out of every ten farming households. They then asked those poor farmers who had been overcome with worries and destitution to thank the emperor for his boundless grace. Throughout the Chinese history, many emperors ordered the local officials to extort the taxes from the poor farmers, but then on the other hand issued decrees to waive the taxes so they would appear benevolent. A similar thing goes on in today's China under the Chinese Communist Party's reign.

Poets in the later dynasties, such as Su Shi from the Northern Song Dynasty and Fan Chengda from the Southern Song Dynasty, wrote about this scheme as well. But Bai Juyi was the first poet who dared to expose such an immoral scheme. Bai Juyi is truly a great poet because of his strong sense of justice. One thing that is worth mentioning is that in the poem Bai Juyi changed from the Third Person to the First Person as though the elderly man in Duling and he had become one person and together they angrily condemned the government officials' beastly behavior. This approach makes the readers feel Bai's rage as a man seeking justice for the poor. It leaves the readers filled with sympathy for the poor farmers and enormous admiration for Bai Juyi's strong sense of justice and his strong feeling of obligation and responsibility for the poor.

When Bai Juyi wrote the poem, he was a high-level government official in the imperial court and had just been promoted to be one of the six members of the royal advisors in the Advisory Ministry, responsible for advising the emperors on important issues. But he had the enormous courage to directly point out the cruel fraud of many local government officials and to sarcastically criticize Emperor Xianzong directly! It took a lot of moral courage! What a lofty character Bai Juyi has!

When they read this poem, today's Chinese people are likely to think of the so-called "natural disasters" around 1960 under the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) reign. In order to please the "Great Chairman Mao Zedong," the CCP officials in the farming villages kept reporting incredibly large number of crop harvests to their superiors. In the end, they reported that the Chinese farmers under the "CCP's great reign" were able to harvest 11,000 tons of rice in every 2.5 acres of paddies. Naturally, China's tax department was unable to collect taxes matching the reported harvests. Afterwards, the "Great Chairman Mao" claimed that the discrepancy was the result of farmers stockpiling their harvests in their private storage. Chairman Mao even put on an act in his speech to "thank" the farmers for stockpiling their harvests. But in reality, 80 million of Chinese people literarily died of hunger. People were forced to practice cannibalism in some regions. How could any farmer stockpile his harvest when there was not enough harvest to keep his family from starving? Those CCP officials were the ones who kept the farmers' harvests as taxes and starved farmers in their villages to death. They didn't face any punishment for starving the poor farmers. Instead, they were praised as "determined CCP officials."

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