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Begging for Food 1

Tao, Yuan-ming (365-427 CE)

Hunger drives me from my home.
I am unaware of my destination.
Many miles of walking lead me to a distant village.
After knocking on a door,
I clumsily express myself.
The owner understands what I need.
He does not want me to come here and receive nothing,
So he offers me food.
We play harmonious music until sunset.
I frequently tilt my cup to receive the wine my host offers.
Happy in our new acquaintance,
We recite old poems and compose new ones.
I appreciate his kindness as Xin Han did that of a washerwoman 2.
However, I am ashamed that I am not as talented as Han 3.
I wish I could tie grass 4 for my host to repay his benevolence.


1 Chapter 113 of Zi-zhi-tong-jian (Lessons for Governing a Kingdom), a history book written by Guang Si-ma (1019-1086), says, "The Jin dynasty was mainly supported by the northern warlords. In September 398 CE, General Huan Xuan allied with other troops at Xun-yang City, Yuan-ming Tao's hometown, and disobeyed the central government. Since then, Xun-yang City became the battlefield of the seesaw war between Xuan Huan and Yu Liu (363-422)."
    The essay "Emperor Wu-di (Yu Liu)" of The Liu-song Dynasty says, "During the late Eastern Jin dynasty, virtue and social order deteriorated. Warlords competed to expand their territories. Local lords and evil gentry seized people's lands at their whim. Heavy taxes and frequent corvée were imposed on farmers. People could not keep their properties and became destitute and homeless." Consequently, a farmers' rebellion led by En Sun broke out in 399. The emperor sent Lao-zhi Liu's troops to crush the rebellion. At this time Yu Liu joined Lao-zhi Liu's army. However, Lao-zhi Liu allowed his soldiers to loot and plunder widely people's possessions. People were disappointed and fled to the countryside. More than a month after the war the cities remained empty. See Chapter 111 of Zi-zhi-tong-jian (Lessons for Governing a Kingdom).
    In 420 CE, Yu Liu usurped the emperorship of the Jin dynasty and founded the Liu-song dynasty. At this time Yuan-ming Tao had suffered the cruelty of war for twenty-two years.
    Traditional loyalty to an emperor prevented Yuan-ming Tao from directly criticizing his government. The only way he could express people's longing for peace and social harmony was to report the truths he had seen or experienced. He was a hard working poet and farmer. However, a disaster like war, fire, flood, famine, robbery, or a plague of locusts could quickly deplete one's food resources. People had to eat. In this poem Tao honestly recorded his suffering and described how he appreciated a stranger's help during his difficult time.

2 On one occasion Xin Han (d. 196 BCE) was starving. Fortunately, he met a washerwoman who offered him food. Xin Han promised to repay her, but she ignored his offer. Later, Xin Han helped Emperor Gao-zu found the Han dynasty and became the King of Chu. Then he found the washerwoman and repaid her with a fortune in gold.

3 This line says that Tao could not repay his host with a fortune in gold during his lifetime as Xin Han did.

4 During the Spring and Autumn Period Wu-zi Wei of the State of Jin had a favorite concubine. She had no sons. When Wu-zi Wei was ill, he asked his son, Ke, to find her a new husband. When Wu-zi was dying, he ordered Ke, "You must bury the concubine alive with me." Ke did not follow his father's final order because his father had given it in a state of confusion. Instead, Ke found his father's concubine a new husband. Later, Ke battled with the troops of the State of Qin at the City of the Fu Clan. He saw an old man tie grass into a rope to trip Qin's Commander, Hui Du. Du fell. Thereby, Ke captured Du and won the battle. That night Ke had a dream in which the old man said he was the concubine's father. See the chapter titled "The fifteenth year of King Xuan-gong's Reign" in Zuo's Extended Version of the Spring and Autumn Annals. Later generations called the act of returning a favor after death "tying grass".