The Old Charcoal Seller
What does the old man fare?
He cuts the wood in southern hill 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 earned by selling charcoal is not just
Enough for food for his mouth and clothing for his back.
Though his coat is thin, he hopes winter will set in,
For cold weather will keep up the charcoals 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 jackets 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 to the ox’s head.
The poet sympathizes with the old charcoal seller in poverty and in misery.
“The Old Charcoal Seller” is the thirty-second poem in the group poem “Fifty Songs of New Music” written by Bai Juyi, a poet of the Tang Dynasty. It describes the plight of an old man who burns charcoal to make a living. Through the charcoal seller’s encounter, the poem profoundly exposes the corrupt nature of the “palace market” and gives a powerful scolding and attack on the ruler’s crime of plundering the people. It expresses the author’s deep sympathy for the working people of the lower class and has a strong social significance. The poem is vivid and vivid in its descriptions, and ends abruptly and powerfully, with originality in the choice of details and the psychological portrayal of the characters.