The Greatest Delight of the Year
Shihu (Stone Lake) in the suburbs of Suzhou was where Fan Chengda (1126–1193), a poet of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) lived. His poem “Tianshe” (“Farmhouse”) describes what he saw there in the fields one day before the autumn harvest of 1186: Carrying hoes as we say hello,
We go to the fields to work,
And busy ourselves at the threshing ground.
As the children sleep on the fallen leaves,
The birds sing their song to the setting sun. Sounds from a far- off village
Wrapped in the smoke of kitchen hearths,
Drift past our ears,
And the pleasant smells of a lush forest
Spread across the land.
What, you ask, delights me the most of all the year? It is, I say, the fields of rice, golden in the glowing light.
On this day, Fan, who had long since retired to the country, went to the fields, carrying a hoe. With the sun setting, sounds were dimly heard from the village, which was enveloped in smoke from cooking fires, and a delicate fragrance came from the nearby forest. On such a day in late autumn, Fan saw the paddy fields stretch endlessly to the horizon, like golden clouds. Unable to hide his joy over a foreseeable good harvest, Fan couldn’t find a better way to express his happiness than to compose the poem.
Such a life may look ordinary enough to readers, but for Fan Chengda, this is exactly what he had longed for after having experienced hardships in his life. Fan is described in historical records as a man who had many adventures and experiences.
He was considered by the people of his time to be a man of unyielding character. In May 1170, Fan was sent to the Jin State to take up the post of grand secretary in the imperial Hall of State Affairs. Fan stayed firm and fearless in the Jin court when confronted with threats and succeeded in fulfilling his diplomatic mission. He was rewarded for what he had done by the Southern Song court. After that, Fan successively worked as an official in present-day Guilin in Guangxi Province, Chengdu in Sichuan Province, Ningbo in Zhejiang Province and in the city of Nanjing. In April 1178, he was promoted to assistant administrator, but two months later, Fan was impeached by the imperial censor and was removed from his new post due to a disagreement over political affairs with Emperor Xiaozong (reign: 1163–1190).
After experiencing the ups and downs of his political career, at the age 53, Fan returned to Shihu, the place where he had spent his childhood and which he had often thought of so fondly. Later, having abandoned his official’s robe and changed into casual clothes, Fan worked hard in the fields, carrying an unwieldy hoe with the hands with which he used to sign official documents. He experienced how it felt to toil year-round in both the scorching sun and biting wind.
Fan Chengda was already 61 years old in 1186, a year that saw no noticeable changes to the political situation of the Southern Song Dynasty. But this was the year that Fan composed the book Sishi tianyuan zaxing (“pastoral poems of four seasons”). As a result of the poet’s hard farming experience and sensitivity to life, the poems became widely known in the poetry circles of Fan’s time. Among these poems, “Tianshe” is the most loved by readers and is still well known today. When reading the lines, one seems to see the golden fields, hear the sounds and smell the fragrance of the forest. Those countryside scenes remind those of their sweetest memories, and bring those who are not familiar with those scenes and the fresh, clean feeling of being in nature.