Title: Peasants' Lament
Author: Li Shen
Poetic Form: júejù 绝句

1. + + ( + + )
    spring + plant + (one + grain + millet)
    gloss: Plant one grain of millet in the Spring

2. + + ( + ( + ))
    autumn + collect + {10,000 + (seeds)}
    gloss: Harvest 10,000 seeds in the autumn

3. ( + ) + + ( + )
    (four + seas) + no + (idle + field)
    gloss: No untilled field as far as the eye can see

4. ( + ) + + (饿 + )
    (farmer + man) + still + (hungry + die!)
    gloss: The farmer still starves to death

1. ( + ) + ( + + )
    (hoe + grain) + (day + serve as + afternoon)
    gloss: Hoeing grain all day long

2. (( + ) + ) + +
    ((sweat + drops) + grain) + fall + earth
    gloss: Drops of sweat and grains both fall to the

3. + + ( + + )
    who + know + (plate + middle + food)
    gloss: Who knew that a plate filled with food

4. ( + + ) + ( + )
   (grain + grain + each/every) + (toilsome + bitter)
    gloss: Each and every grain required such
    bitter labor


Peasants' Lament
translation by Jessica Alexander ©

Seed one in the spring,
          harvest ten thousand in the fall.
To the horizon, no idle field...
          Even so, the farmer starves.

Hoe to grain, sun up, sun down.
          Sweat and stalks fall to earth.
Who knew that on the feast-filled plate,
          each and every crumb was so much trouble.


This is Li Shen’s most famous poem and possibly the most famous Tang Dynasty poem to focus on the inherent contradictions in feudal society: the unreasonableness of the life and fate of the peasantry (and the ignorance of the rich with regard to the issue).  The poet describes the actual situation and, in so doing, combines the contrasting factors of the peasant’s life into a simple, unadorned poem that manages to be sympathetic without superficiality or abstraction.

Lines 1 and 2 provide the reader with a strong visual of a bumper harvest: one seed becomes ten thousand.  The use of the terms (planting) and (collecting) express the hard work involved in the harvest cycle.  Line 3 continues to provide a visual image of the labor devoted to cultivated fields that stretch out as far as the eye can see.  The flow of these first three lines gives a layering effect: the peasant’s contribution, labor, and achievement on the land.  Line 4 is a brutal change, tacitly asking the reader: “What’s the point of such abundance when the man who created it starves anyway?”  The reader is forced to seek the obvious answer that he is the one responsible for the peasant’s tragedy.  The stanza ends with a bad omen: death ().

Like the first stanza, the second begins with time contrasts: morning – night, as compared to the first stanza’s spring – autumn.  The peasant’s daily life continues to unfold before the reader in lines 1 and 2 as the farmer tills the ground with a hoe () and irrigates the soil with his own sweat and blood (汗滴).  This time, however, Li Shen doesn’t wait until the last line to ask his rhetorical question, again forcing the reader to seek the obvious answer: that he is the one who does not recognize (mentally or financially) the effort that goes into farming the land.  The poem ends with a sigh of regret: bitterness ().

Oblique rhymes in #1 (lines 2 and 4), in #2 (lines 1, 2, and 4).


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