Saturday, April 09, 2011

National Poetry Month: Buying Flowers

Bai Juyi was a Chinese poet in the late eighth-mid ninth century. Like many poets and scholars of imperial China, he was also an administrator and court adviser. His poetry emphasized clear language and a lot of his political work dealt with social reform and opposing imperial excess.

I think this shows in his poetry, such as the poem I'm sharing today

Buying Flowers

Almost late spring in the imperial city;
Noise and bustle from passing carriages and horses.
People sad that peonies were in blossom,
Following each other to buy the flowers.
Expensive or cheap, no fixed price, except according to quantity;
Five hundred bright red blossoms cost five lengths of silk.
Overhead were awnings and curtains for shelters;
Around them were bamboo fences for protection.
Sprayed with water and their roots sealed with mud;
When they were removed, they still retained their beauty.
Every family accepted this, none questioning it was wrong.
Then and old villager came to the market.
Head bowed, he sighed to himself, though none knew why.
He sighed because the cost of a bunch of deep red flowers
Was the same as the taxes paid by ten peasant families.

I like the imagery, although I think the last lines hit point home rather hard and could have been done much more subtly to greater effect, but I'm also looking at it several centuries later.

The poem (and the biographical information) came from Poetry and Prose of the Tang and Song, edited and translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang.

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