Poems of Bai Juyi
Gentle Crow Nightly Wails
This gentle crow misses his mother,
Crying aloud in a mournful voice.
Day and night, he keeps his perch.
For years he has guarded this old grove.
Each night, half the night he wails
Until you join him, tears running down your face.
Amid his cries, you hear him say, he has
Yet to finish repaying the heart that fed him.
These other birds, don't they have a mother?
Does only this one deeply feel his grief?
A mother's gentle love should be repaid.
Do this instead of giving grief free rein.
In the Warring States, there was Wu Qi, who
Couldn't be bothered to mourn his mother.
We can now lament this modern generation of his imitators
Whose hearts are not equal to those of beasts.
This gentle crow restores the gentility of crows.
Among crows, he is as Kongzi's disciple, Zeng Shen.
I believe this poem is about government reforms in the late Tang and Bai Juyi's disapproval of them. I think this poem is an oblique criticism of those in power and possibly not a poem he shared beyond his friends.
Wu Qi (吴起) was an excellent military strategist who was eventually made Prime Minister of the State of Chu (楚). He preserved that country militarily and then instituted reforms to correct the corruption in Chu's court. He dismissed incompetent officials and moved competent ones out of the city to the borders. This weakened their power at court and strengthened the state at its edges. Politically and militarily, his radical reforms worked. They also made him a boatload of enemies.
It was said that not only did he not mourn his mother, which was a three year task not easily fit into a period of reform, but also murdered his wife, the daughter of a neighboring state's noble, in order to gain the trust of his king. These may or may not have been the slanders of his enemies. In the end, Wu Qi's king died, Wu Qi was murdered, and corruption returned to the court in a flood.
Bai Juyi had a sense of what China rightfully should be. Reforms which destroyed that rightfulness in order to preserve the state were, in his mind, destructive of the state in a deeper sense. To preserve China, one must preserve its principles. And the later the Tang got, the less its principles were preserved. Throughout his life, Bai Juyi was an idealist and China, as a living culture, was his ideal. I think that the mother of this poem, who deserves the repayment of her childrens' love, is Bai Juyi's ideal China.
Kongzi (孔子), by the way, is Confucius. His disciple, Zeng Seng (曾参) is said to have written the Classic of Filial Piety (孝經).