The Old Charcoal Seller by Bai Juyi
What’s the old man’s affair?
He cuts the wood in southern hills and fires his ware.
His face is grimed with smoke and streaked with ash and dust,
His temples grizzled and his fingers all turned black
The money made by selling charcoal is not just
Enough for food and clothing for his mouth and back.
Although his coat is thin, he hopes winter will set in,
For weather cold will keep up the charcoal’s good price.
At night a foot of snow falls outside city walls,
At dawn his charcoal cart crushes ruts in the ice.
The sun is high, the ox tired out and hungry he,
Outside the southern gate in snow and slush they rest.
Two riders canter up, alas! Who can they be?
Two palace heralds in the yellow jacket dressed.
Decree in hand, which is imperial order, one says,
They turn the cart about and at the ox they shout.
A cartload of charcoal a thousand catties weighs;
They drive the cart away. What dare the old man say!
Ten feet of silk and twenty feet of gauze deep red –
That is the payment they fasten in the ox’s head.
This short narrative poem enjoys great popularity as its language is plain and easy to understand. Through the recounting of an old charcoal seller’s miserable experience, it expressed the poet’s strong detestation against the “court buy” and his deep sympathy for the working people. “Court buy” is a way of purchase used by the imperial court of the Tang Dynasty, through which the eunuch at court or small officiais would seize things as they pleased. Sometimes they would not pay a single cent, and sometimes they gave used or useless things like pieces of silk and satin of the court for payment. The ordinary people who had been robbed of their properties had no way to assure their livelihood and could not stand the sufferings.
The first twelve lines tell the process how the old man made charcoal and carried it to the market, and portray the character of the old charcoal! Seller from three aspects: his appearance, feelings and actions, and the psychological description is especially outstanding. The poet expressed his mixed feelings with the lines “the poor old man was thinly clad, worrying that his charcoal would sell cheap, however, he would rather the weather were cold,” which is unexpected at first thought, but sounds reasonable when one considers it carefully. They show that the old man suffered from poverty and what he desired to seek was only food and clothing.
The latter eight lines give an account of how the court officials plundered the old man. More than a thousand jin of charcoal was taken away from the old man, and what he got was only the useless “half bolt of red raw silk and one zhang of silk”. All of a sudden, his tough works of “cutting fire wood and making charcoal” had been wasted, his desires to seek only food and clothing vanished into the air, and the hope of the whole family’s “clothing and food” was destroyed. “(The old man felt) grudging but he had no choices” describes the old charcoal seller’s feelings of distress and helplessness. The poem ends up with “the unfair payment for the charcoal” and makes one feel sad after reading the poem.
Contrast is one of the important writing techniques used in this poem. The arduous charcoal making and transportation are described in the first part, and the greater sufferings he experienced when his charcoal was robbed are described in the second half. It forms sharp contrasts between “the ox is sleepy and the old man is hungry” and “two elegant men on horsebacks,” and “one cart of charcoal weighs over a thousand jin” and “half bolt of red raw silk and one zhang of silk,” which reflects the feudal rulers’ cruel exploitation against the working people who lived a hard and miserable life.