Poems of Bai Juyi
Watching the Barley Harvest
Farming families have little leisure this month.
In July, folks are double-busy.
Night falls and a South wind rises
And barley covers Gansu province in yellow.
Older women carry baskets of grain.
Children tote pots of starch paste.
They all trail back with food and drink
For the strong men in the Southern fields.
Plenty humid in summer's dusty wind.
Backs are burning in this summer's hot light.
Strength is just exhausted in this mind-numbing heat.
But they all cherish these long summer days.
Back and forth, the poor wives go,
Keeping their small children by their side.
In their right hand, an ear of overlooked grain.
On their left arm, a battered basket hangs.
Everyone here smiles as they talk together.
But hearing them makes me sad.
Farm families are worn down by such heavy taxes
That their own harvest leaves them hungry.
Now what have I achieved today?
I've never worked as these families do.
My official salary: 700 bushels of their grain per year.
In my late years, I have too much food.
Reading this poem, I am secretly ashamed.
This day in the fields, I must never forget.
Bai Juyi was 35 as he wrote 观刈麦 in 807. He was probably still in Zhouzhi as a minor official. But he had just been made a member of the Reminder of the Left and of the Brushwood Court (翰林院 or Hanlin Academy.) The Brushwood Court was a group of scholars, brought together by the Tang Emperor, to interpret the Confucian Classics, in a manner sympathetic to the Tang Emperor. I'll let you know what the Reminder of the Left was when I can find out for certain myself. At any rate, these appointments would have bumped his salary from his minor official's base amount to the 700 bushels of grain mentioned here. And I'm not substituting the word "bushels" for the character "dan (石)." I'm calculating actual bushels. And 700 bushels make a fair-sized boat's load of grain even today.
Some might call this one of Bai Juyi's poems which were critical of officialdom. And maybe some of his contemporaries went ahead and took what umbrage they could almost find here. But the only official Bai Juyi directly criticizes in this poem is Bai Juyi. Apart from the taxman, that is. And we all, even the toadies at court, criticize the taxman. All Bai Juyi seems to be doing here is telling himself that, if he can ever do anything about this injustice imposed on the common farmers, he will. We'll see if he does.
But the main thrust of this poem is Bai Juyi's sympathy for the reality of the harvest and its harvesters. The heat. The laughter. What they have in their hands and in their hearts. And all those fields of grain, yellow beneath the moon. Before he tells us how he feels about any of it, he tells us what he sees. And he sees so much for us that we can imagine what would be before us here if Hokusai had been watching this barley harvest instead. If you don't believe me, just close your eyes and look.