In the first year of the Yixing reign of Emperor An, Liu Jingxuan, Liu Louzhing's son, was the General Jianwei. He had worked as provincial governor of Jianzhou before. He invited Tao Yuanming to join him as his counselor. This was Tao Yuanming's fourth stint as an official. By then, Tao was forty-one years old. Later on, Liu Jingxuan resigned, and so did Tao Yuanming. Their period of governance was also very short.
The last time Tao Yuanming worked for the government was as a magistrate of Penze county. In March of the first year of the Yixing reign, Tao Yuanming resigned, along with Liu Jingxuan. In August of the same year, Tao Yuanming worked as Penze county magistrate, his fifth time working for the government. After only eighty-some days, he decided to resign again. He then wrote an essay — "To Return" — expressing his determination in departing from a governmental career. After that, Tao Yuanming never worked as a government official again for the rest of his life.
Later on, Liu Yu became the emperor and invited Tao to be a government official on several occasions; Tao rejected them all. In the preface of "To Return," Tao explained his reasons for becoming the Penze county magistrate and for later resigning. The preface mentions "a house full of little kids"—he had too many children but lacked the resources to support the family. From reading Tao Yuanming's poems, we know that he had at least five sons. Daughters weren't counted because the ancient Chinese only considered males to be important.
Tao Yuanming married twice. His first wife died when he was in his thirties. He married again. The two wives gave him a total of five sons. Under such heavy financial pressure, he wanted to work for the government. So the famous Song Dynasty writer, Su Shi, described Tao Yuanming as "working for the government when he desired to, without feeling shame in his requests; retiring when he desired to, without thinking himself lofty." His point was that Tao Yuanming was very honest and frank. When he wanted to work for the government, he asked for the opportunity; he did not consider it necessary to avoid seeking a job openly. When he did not feel comfortable about that work, he quit and went home, yet he didn't consider retreating as something lofty.
In the preface of "To Return," he said, "I have a very poor family with many children, so my relatives all suggested that I find a post in the government. I myself also had this idea, therefore I took a position in Penze county close to home, 'which is but a hundred li from home.' Thus I was pleased to accept the job of Penze country magistrate." Why did he resign later? According to his biography, there were two reasons: one, as mentioned in the preface of "To Return," was that his younger sister suddenly died at Wuchang. He had to rush over for the funeral, so he quit. This was the only explanation he could reveal in public.
In fact, there was another reason given in other history books. As I mentioned before, his biography is not found only in
The Book of Jin History, The Book of Song History, and
The Book of the South. Xiao Tong, Prince Zhaoming of the Liang Dynasty, who had compiled Literary Selections, the first collection of selected poems and articles in Chinese history, was the first to organize Tao's work after his death. Prince Zhaoming also wrote a biography of Tao. According to Xiao Tong, the real reason behind Tao Yuanming's resignation as the Penze county magistrate was that "a supervisor from the prefecture was coming." Penze is a county, and a prefecture is superior to a county. The prefecture would send a "supervisor" to audit the political gains and losses and evaluate the county and local officials' performance.
Originally, the government's onsite audits of local administrators were well-intentioned. However, we should know that in a society of corrupt bureaucrats, most officials sent by higher-level authorities were not candid and honest public servants. Most of them went on site and forgot about their duties. They squandered working people's money, drank, ate, resorted to blackmail, and accepted gifts. If you satisfied their demands, they would report back on how wonderful you are. If you did not entertain them well and serve them humbly, they would present a negative report, no matter how well you managed the local government.
In short, while Tao Yuanming was the Penze county magistrate, an official was sent to evaluate his administration. It was hinted to Tao Yuanming that he should treat that official well. According to historical records, he should "wear a belt to greet him." This type of belt is often seen in Chinese opera. Whenever higher-level officials and superiors arrive, the subordinate must wear an official's formal robe and a belt to greet them.
Tao Yuanming detested the hypocritical courtesy of the political arena, so he said, "I won't bow to a bucolic boy for the sake of five pecks of rice." "Bow" means to bend from the waist, a gesture of humble subservience. "Boy" indicates a man having little virtue and knowledge. It is used in a derogatory sense.
To be continued