Ancient Poems About Laborers’ Plight

On International Workers’ Day, we take a look at how ancient poets wrote about labor and the working classes

As a common slogan went during China’s Mao years, “Labor is the most glorious (劳动最光荣).” Nowadays, though, many of the country’s overworked tech programmers or “lying flat” urbanites may disagree—even today, on a public holiday for International Workers’ Day.

It could be worse: For centuries, the majority of the Chinese population worked manual jobs as peasant farmers suffering heavy tax burdens and unrelenting work hours for their troubles.

Ancient poets, a privileged and scholarly group, drew inspiration from the hardship and grit of the laboring classes in their poetry. From farmers working under the summer sun, charcoal sellers shivering in the winter snow, to silkworm breeders who couldn’t afford the garments they worked to make, poets regularly recorded their hard lives, expressed sympathy, and denounced social inequality.

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author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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