Poems of Bai Juyi
Bitter Cold in the Villages
Eighth year, twelfth moon,
Fifth day, snow without end.
Bamboo and cedars die in this cold.
And so do any peasants without warm clothes.
Turning around in the midst of their villages,
You see ten shacks, each with eight or nine poor.
And when the North Wind cuts like a sword,
Cotton clothes won't keep a life from bleeding out.
Huddled around weak flames of burning brambles,
They fret through the nights, waiting for dawn.
And so it goes, through each year's Great Cold,
The people of the land have the most hardship.
Now look at me as I write of them.
I hide within the gates of my rustic hut.
In brown fur coat and rough silk quilt,
I lounge at ease in all this extra warmth.
Only by fate do I escape their cold and hunger
And live a life beyond the rough ridged fields.
It comes to me, I should feel more shame than this.
I ask myself what kind of man I am.
The year is 813 and Bai Juyi is living along the Wei River in a faux-rustic shack as he mourns his mother's passing. He's forty-one and married. And it's cold outside. Really cold. The Great Cold (大寒) is the dead dead-cold middle of winter in the Lunar Calendar. Which sets Bai Juyi, who is in fact warm enough, thinking about the villages he's seen, out there in this brutal weather.
Bai Juyi knows that many of the peasants freeze to death each year. And he obliquely holds the government to blame in this poem. He (poetically) turns around, not in the village, but in the Cunlü (村闾) or Government Division of Twenty-five Families. The government knows the peasants freeze and starve. And the government is plenty active on taxes, as we are told in (观刈麦) Watching the Barley Harvest. Not so active on feeding and clothing the taxed. But Bai Juyi doesn't spell this out for us. He just hands us one corner and expects us to find the other three.
I think Bai Juyi is sincerely discomforted by his distance from the peasants and their misery, a distance provided by fate. He was fated to have someone to teach him to read and write, fated to pass the regional exams and be sent as literally physical tribute to the Emperor so that he could take the national exams. It all could have been otherwise and he knows it. And he also knows, and has feelings for, the plight of those who are trapped in that cold, impoverished Otherwise. So I don't doubt that he felt some shame at this disparity of fates. And then felt that his shame was insufficient, given the very real fate of those whose spirits bled out bloodlessly in that bitter cold.
I wish he would have told us what kind of man he decided he was. I'm sure we could have learned something from whatever answer he came up with.