Bai Juyi’s “The Old Charcoal-Seller”Posted: December 13, 2012
Bái Jūyì (772-846)
Mài Tàn Wēng
(Kǔ gōngshì yě.)
Mài tàn wēng,
Fá xīn shāo tàn nánshān zhōng,
Mǎn miàn chén huī yān huǒ sè,
Liǎng bìn cāngcāng shí zhǐ hēi.
Mài tàn dé qián hé suǒ yíng?
Shēn shàng yīshang kǒu zhōng shí.
Kělián shēn shàng yī zhèng dān,
Xīn yōu tàn jiàn yuàn tiān hán.
Yèlái chéng wài yì chí xuě,
Xiǎo jià tàn chē niǎn bīng zhé.
Niú kùn rén jī rì yǐ gāo,
Shì nán mén wài ní zhōng xiē.
Piānpiān liǎng jì lái shì shuí?
Huǎng yī shǐzhě bái shān ér.
Shǒu bǎ wénshū kǒu chēng chì,
Huí chē chì niú qiān xiàng běi.
Yì chē tàn, qiān yú jīn,
Gōngshǐ qū jiāng xī bù dé.
Bàn pǐ hóng shā yí zhàng níng,
Jì xiàng niú tóu chōng tàn zhí.
. . .
This poem appears here in Hanzi (Chinese logograms or characters) and then in Pinyin (Chinese characters in Latin script). Following, “The Old Charcoal-Seller” as translated by Burton Watson in his Po Chu-I Selected Poems (Columbia University Press). Watson is a scholar, just as is Frederick Turner (see Turner’s translation in the “Snow” post above), yet Watson’s translation of Bai Juyi’s evocative poem is markedly different…
. . .
Bai Juyi (772-846)
“The Old Charcoal-Seller”
(Lamenting Hardships Caused by the Palace Purchasing Procedure)
cutting wood, making charcoal in the southern hills,
face soot-coloured, covered with dust and grime,
sidelocks grizzled, all ten fingers black,
peddling charcoal to get money – and what does it go for?
Clothes for the body, food for the mouth.
But – pitiful! – his body clad in one thin robe,
he worries how much his coal will bring, praying for cold weather.
Last night snow outside the city heaped up a foot deep;
at dawn he sets off in his cart, wheels crunching over frozen ruts.
Ox exhausted, driver hungry, sun already high,
they rest in the mud by the market’s south gate.
And who are these two horsemen arrogantly galloping by?
Yellow-robed palace attendant with his white-shirted lackey.
Hand waving a document, mouth barking out an order,
he turns the cart around, shouts at the ox, heads off north.
One whole load of charcoal, a thousand “catties”* and more,
but when palace attendants whisk it away, what good are regrets?
Half a roll of cheap red silk, a swatch of damask tied to the ox’s horn
– this their “full payment” for the charcoal!
* “catties” – 1 cattie equals about 500 grams
. . . . .