806 | China

Sow and Reap

The not-so-simple life of a farmer.

Tillers of the soil have few idle months;
In the fifth month their toil is doublefold.
A south wind visits the fields at night:
Suddenly the hill is covered with yellow corn.
Wives and daughters shoulder baskets of rice;
Youths and boys carry the flasks of wine.
Following after they bring a wage of meat
To the strong reapers toiling on the southern hill,
Whose feet are burned by the hot earth they tread,
Whose backs are scorched by flames of the shining sky.
Tired they toil, caring nothing for the heat,
Grudging the shortness of the long summer day.
A poor woman follows at the reapers’ side
With an infant child carried close at her breast.
With her right hand she gleans the fallen grain;
On her left arm a broken basket hangs.
And I today…By virtue of what right
Have I never once tended field or tree?
My government pay is three hundred tons;
At the year’s end I have still grain in hand.
Thinking of this, secretly I grew ashamed;
And all day the thought lingered in my head.


Bai Juyi

“Watching the Reapers.” Bai passed the civil-service test at the age of twenty-eight in 800 and later, while studying diligently for a further special examination, he appears to have forever damaged his eyesight. He was the most prolific Tang Dynasty poet: more than three thousand of his poems are extant, some of which are quoted at length in the influential Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji