c. 1525 | Shangxi Province

Human Capital

I ask her, “Why do you wish to sell your son?”

The village woman brings her five-year-old son 
to sell to our household for four and a half measures of grain.
I ask her, “Why do you wish to sell your son?”
And she answers me, with repeated sighs,
“My husband is old, sick in bed, and blind in both eyes;
from morning to evening, there’s no telling if he’ll live or die.
Our five acres near the village are only poor land,
and our two rooms, circled by a wall, are falling apart.
My eldest son is thirteen, and he can push a plow,
but our fields are few, our profit meager, so we don’t have enough to eat.
Last winter we were late with our tax payments:
the officials came knocking at our door, pressuring us to pay.
Only when a rich family made us a loan did we manage to get through,
but thinking back, that only made our life more difficult than before.
My second son, eight years old, knows oxen and sheep,
so the eastern neighbor bought him to care for his herds.
Meanwhile, the rich people demand payment of our debt,
as if they expected us to pay with our lives,
and my sick husband coughs and wheezes, his stomach completely empty.
Come to such a pass, we realized we had no choice at all,
and so I’ve brought my youngest son here to exchange for grain.
Half this grain will be used to repay the rich folks’ loan,
half will be used to make some gruel to feed my poor husband.”
When the village woman stopped speaking, she prepared to leave,
but her son tugged at her clothes, crying his mother’s name.
The woman, miserable, lingered for a while,
and borrowed the use of a spare bed, so she could pass the night with her son.
When the morning drums beat solemnly, and the roosters cried their wild cry,
the woman rose, and hesitated as she watched her son in his sound sleep.
Then, stifling her sobs, holding back the tears, she left the city walls
with the grain that would at least alleviate her terrible suffering.
When the boy woke up, he called for his mother, but she was nowhere to be seen,
so he walked around the house, crying out loud, unsteady on his feet.
Everyone who saw him wept tears at the sight,
everyone who heard him knit his brow.
Alas! The wild tiger does not eat its cub,
and the old ox will lick the calf.
How can we throw away this pearl we hold in the palm of our hand,
cutting away this flesh from our heart!
Please realize:
he rich grow crueler as their fields increase,
and they buy servants and slaves with their wealth.
Then, one day, they curse them in anger,
whipping them unfeelingly until their blood flows!
Don’t they know that all flesh and bone comes from the same womb,
that another’s son and my son are of one form?
Alas! Will the four seas and the nine continents share the same springtime,
so there will be no more people who must sell their daughters and sons?

Translated by Jonathan Chares. © 1986, Columbia University Press. Used with permission of Columbia University Press.


Wang Jiusi

“Ballad of Selling a Child.” For his association with the corrupt imperial eunuch Liu Jin, Wang and his friend and fellow poet Kang Hai were forced into early retirement and spent the rest of their lives living and writing in Shangxi Province. In one of his satirical plays, Wang wrote about the eighth-century poet Du Fu, who at one point declines a position offered to him by a new prime minister, saying that he would prefer to spend his time “buying drink, making spring outings, and going to sea on a raft.”