Poetry of the Seven Sorrows by Li Yuyang

  • The poetry of the seven sorrows was an ancient Chinese poetry form, based on Wang Can’s Poem of the Seven Sorrows, also known as Song of the Seven Sorrows. This poem is about the suffering and atrocities of the chaotic collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 CE. The seven sorrows refer to the five senses (taste, smell, touch, sight and hearing) plus bitterness and injustice. 
  • This type of poetry was revived by Li Yuyang around 1815 CE.

Illustration of Li Yuyang (from Blazon, n.d.).

How is this related to climate?

  • Poetry of the seven sorrows was revived by Confucian student Li Yuyang in response to the suffering endured after the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, the largest volcanic explosion in recorded history. The eruption sent sulfur dioxide and volcanic ash into the air, blocking out the sun and causing a volcanic winter in which average global temperatures dropped by 3°C. 
  • The Yunnan province of China (map below) where Li Yuyang lived, was hit particularly hard by the effects of the eruption. 
    • Yunnan had been very prosperous due to its agriculture and mining industries. It had fertile lowlands, a mild climate and plentiful copper, silver, gold and salt ores. At the turn of the 19th century, Yunnan was set to undergo a period of large imperial and industrial growth. 
    • Beginning about a month after Tambora erupted in 1815, Yunnan saw record low temperatures that persisted over the next three years. From 1815 to 1817, August temperatures were as much as 3℃ lower than the seasonal average, snow fell in the summer and rain poured down on the region. 
    • These climatic changes had devastating effects on crop yields. The rain drowned and rotted crops. Rice crops, exceptionally hardy plants, could not survive the summer cold snaps and production fell by as much as two-thirds. 
    • The reduction of crop yields led to extreme famine. Grain prices skyrocketed so many ordinary people could no longer afford it. Mothers sold their children for food. People ate white clay and soil, eventually dying from related intestinal problems. 
      • In 1814, before the eruption of Tambora, Yunnan experienced cyclical drought and, as a result, lower crop yields, so grain reserves were already depleted, contributing to the famine. 
    • By the summer of 1818, volcanic ash cleared from the air and temperatures and precipitation returned to normal. An exceptionally large harvest ended the famine.

The provinces of China. Note the Yunnan province, shown in light blue, in the southwest of China (from Briney, 2019).

  • By dramatizing the five senses and the negative concepts of bitterness and injustice, Li Yuyang tried to capture the suffering and traumatic experiences of the Yunnan people whose lives were torn apart by climatic disaster.

Examples of Li Yuyang’s Poems (from Wood, 2014)

Poem Notes
A Sigh for Autumn Rain

The clouds like a dragon’s breath on the mountains, 

Winds howl, circling and swirling, 

The Rain God shakes the stars, and the rain

Beats down on the world. An earthquake of rain. 

Water spilling from the eaves deafens me.

People rush from falling houses in their thousands 

And tens of thousands, for the work of the rain

Is worse than the work of thieves. Bricks crack. Walls fall. 

In an instant, the house is gone. My child catches my coat 

And cries out. I am running in the muddy road, then

Back to rescue my money and grains from the ruins. 

What else to do? My loved ones must eat. 

There are no words for the bitterness of 

An empty September. The flood-drowned fields

Harvest three grains for every ten of a good year. 

And from these three grains? Meals and clothes till next September.

  • In Chinese folklore, the cloud dragon represents spring rains that are essential for crop growth and production. 
  • In this poem, the cloud dragon is angry and unpredictable and punishes the people.
Bitter Famine

Outside, the starved corpses pile high, 

While in her room the young mother

Waits upon her child’s death. Unbearable

Sorrow. My love, you cry to me to feed you – 

But no one sees my tears. Who can I tell which aches

More? My heart or my body wasting away?

She takes her baby out to the deep river. 

Clear and cool, welcome water…

She will care for that child in the life to come.

  • This poem was written in the fall of 1817, at the worst of the food crisis. 
  • A young starving mother resorts to drowning herself and her child.
Grain tax! The policemen shout. Their whips

Slice the air, and the agony of the people 

Is neverending. Who can plug heaven with a stone, 

Or command the Shang-yang stop flying?

If only the sun would rise where it should, 

And the dragon with his dark clouds disappear. 

O our free hearts then! But when I ask if tomorrow

Will be fine, the flower under my feet says nothing.

  • Shang-yang is the bird of the rain.
  • Li Yuyang is accusing local officials, who continue to collect grain taxes as usual, of showing no mercy amidst a time of crisis.
Rain falls unending, like tears of blood

From the sentimental man. 

Houses sink and shudder

Like fish in the rippling water

I see my older boy pulling at his mother’s skirt. 

The little one cries unheard. Money gone, and 

Rice rare as pearls, we offer our blankets to save ourselves. 

A single dou of grain, and nothing over to fix the house. 

We have only a few acres, and these grow nothing. 

My wife and children portion out their grains across

The wide year. At least the taxman stays away. 

How could anyone fill his deep pockets?

  • Li Yuyang feels helpless as he watches his wife and two young children starve to death.
300 copper coins for a bag of grain 

300 copper coins for three days of life

Where can the poor people find such money?

They barter their sons and daughters on the streets. 

Still they know the price of a son 

Is not enough to pay for their hunger. 

And yet to watch him die is worse. 

Think of our son’s body as food, as grain for one meal. 

The little ones don’t understand, how could they?

But the older boys keep close, weeping. 

Stop crying and go with him. Selling is

A blessing, because to buy you he must feed you. 

The cold wind blows in their faces, 

The parents wipe their tears away. 

But back home they cannot sleep 

While the birds moan like old men in the night

  • Desperate parents sold their children for food.
You open the Li Gate, and the hungry millions moan 

At the smell of gruel. You give a bowl to the grown man, 

Half to the child. But don’t you see the strong men push forward, 

While the old stumble? We wait until noon, 

Bellies hollow like thunder. But your porridge 

Is like water. I will come again tomorrow, 

If I am not already dead. I will beg again

for porridge, but quietly, so not to anger you.

  • Granary managers distribute porridge to hungry people as part of government relief operations. The porridge was made deliberately horrible so that only the most starving people would line up to get it.
Around the neighborhood, you can hear her crying, 

That old widow, cold and hungry, and in rags. 

She will tell you the famous story of her son:

Her tireless hands, in the fields from dawn to dusk, 

Could only feed two mouths. He took care of 

His mother, hence his fame. But Death cared less

And took him away. The sweet bonds of their love 

Untied, the grey-haired widow is all alone. 

“My time is short, and I dream for our reunion, 

But life teases me awake. Why do I still have breath

When I have no food? Take me, for his soul’s peace! … “ 

But only the birds listen. They take flight into the darkness. 

Lucky birds, however distant, fly home. Not her.

  • A man sacrifices his family to feed his mother, but he starves to death, leaving her alone and desperate.

References and additional resources