Fun with Tang Dynasty Poetry: "The Bitter Coldness in the Households of the Farming Villages"

Wen Sige

PureInsight | September 19, 2005


The Bitter Coldness in the Households of the Farming Villages

In December of the eighth year of the Yuanhe Period [under Emperor Xianzong's reign,]
It once snowed five days in a row.
Even bamboos and cypresses were frozen,
not to mention civilians without clothes!
When I returned to my village,
I witnessed eight to nine out of ten households were destitute.
The gusty wind from the north was sharp as a knife.
The rags they were wearing were not enough to cover their skin.
They had no choice but to burn dried wild grass [to keep warm]
And sat in distress all night until morning.
It was not until then that I realized during the freezing winter
Farmers suffered from greater misery and grief.
Looking back at myself in the snowy day,
I found myself inside a house with a gate.
I was clad in fur and covered with silk duvet.
The room was warm when I sat or when I slept.
I am spared from the misfortune of hunger and coldness,
But I don't have to diligently work in the paddies.
To think of these farmers makes me ashamed.
I ask myself: how can I call myself a human being?

"The Bitter Coldness in the Households of the Farming Villages" 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 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 various forms of poetry, especially lengthy narrative 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 praised "Song of Eternal Sorrow" as an extremely beautiful poem.

About the Poem
Bai Juyi wrote the poem when he went back to his hometown village to attend his mother's funeral. After he witnessed the farmers' sufferings, he searched inward and blamed himself for the farmer's destitute conditions. It reveals Bai Juyi's noble character and lofty morality.

The Author's Interpretation
This poem is written in simple language and flows beautifully. It was written in a plain and narrative style, but it reveals Bai Juyi's genuine compassion for the poor and the unfortunate people. This is very typical of Bai Juyi.

Bai Juyi made a comparison between the farmers' condition of poverty with his comfortable life. The way he blamed himself reflected that he was genuinely concerned about people's suffering. The way he asked himself and searched inward reflected his noble character and morality.

By making a comparison between the farmers' miserable life with that of the wealthy people, Bai Juyi also criticized those wealthy but depraved people. A lot of people with kindness and the spirit of justice are capable of writing commentaries, but there are few people who will reflect on their own life style or blame themselves for not being able to improve the farmers' life like Bai Juyi did. His lofty morality is precisely what makes Bai Juyi a great poet in the Chinese history. The fact that his poetry remains popular and highly respected after a few thousand years must have a lot to do with his outstanding level of morality.

Translated from:

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