Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o

I’ve been reading Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o translated by Burton Watson and have just finished the section entitled “Part One: Early Years (1059-1073). It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, but it’s hard to pick out one poem as representative, particularly since Su Tung-p’o writes poems about so many different subjects.

Considering the present economy, though, this one particularly struck me:

Lament of the Farm Wife of Wu (1072)

Rice this year ripens so late!
We watch, but when will frost winds come?
They come – with rain in bucketfuls;
the harrow sprouts mold, the sickle rusts.
My tears are all cried out, but rain never ends;
it hurts to see yellow stalks flattened in the mud.
We camped in a grass shelter a month by the fields;
then it cleared and we reaped the grain, followed the wagon home,
sweaty; shoulders sore, carting it to town –
the price it fetched, you’d think we came with chaff.
We sold the ox to pay taxes, broke up the roof for kindling;
we’ll get by for a time, but what of next year’s hunger?
Officials demand cash now – they won’t take grain;
the long northwest border tempts invaders.
Wise men fill the court – why do things get worse?
I’d be better off bride to the River Lord!

Line 16. “Bride to the River Lord.” In ancient times it was the custom each year to sacrifice a young girl as a “bride” to the River Lord, the god of the Yellow River, by placing her on a bed and letting her float down the river until the bed capsized and she drowned.

I’m a city boy and always have been, but having once been married to the daughter of a wheat farmer I’m all too aware of how dependent farmers are on the whims of the weather. And I know from limited experience just how hard harvest is — with machinery — though it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like in 1072 in China.

It seems like the more things change the more they stay the same. Doesn’t it? It’s hard for us to imagine the kind of grinding poverty these farmers endured; perhaps we need to, though. It will give us some perspective on what we are enduring, which is not to say that there aren’t people who feel exactly like the farmer’s wife did over a thousand years ago.

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