Later on, many scholars investigated the meaning of Tao's words. Many immediately assumed that "five pecks of rice" referred to his official emolument (salary), which was paid in grain. However, later research indicated that the official emolument in the Eastern Jin Dynasty should have been more than five pecks of rice. Five pecks of rice could hardly sustain one person, much less resolve the problem of family poverty and support an elderly parent. In fact, we need not concern ourselves with how much five pecks of rice amounted to, just as people often use the expression, "I wouldn't do that for the sake of a bowl of rice" when they actually eat more than a bowl of rice.
In general, five pecks of rice represent low wages. Tao Yuanming was saying, "I'm not willing to bow to that corrupt official for the sake of a meager salary." Thus, he resigned. That was the fifth and last time that Tao Yuanming worked for the government.
From the introduction given above, we see that Tao Yuanming had two motives for becoming an official. At first, he sought an official position in order to support his elderly mother and his poor family. The last time he worked for the government was because he had a house full of children and nothing to feed them. The several times in between, he may have taken a government post because he saw the national turmoil and hoped to quell the revolts and bring peace to the country and the lives of the people.
Last time I mentioned a verse of Tao Yuanming's which said, "When I was young, I was strong and brave. I carried my sword and traveled alone. Who says that I have only been to nearby places? I have traveled from Zhangyi to Youzhou." He says that he had visited Zhangyi and Youzhou, places in northern China. However, at that time, the greater part of northern China was occupied by barbarian tribes, and it is quite impossible that Tao Yuanming could have gone there. So, why does he insist on mentioning these two places in the north? I surmise that in working for the government, Tao Yuanming not only hoped to improve the lives of citizens under the rule of the Eastern Jin dynasty, which was situated in the remote area of Jiangnan, but he also aspired to one day reclaim the vast northern territories of China. In that poem, Zhangyi and Youzhou are symbols of that aspiration, which he was never able to realize. This is a fine poem, which we will discuss in more detail later on.
Next I would like to discuss his poem "Return," which is closely related to the series of poems entitled "On Drinking." The real reason for his resolve to go into seclusion and not enter the political arena again, as well as the train of thought that led to this decision, will be seen again when we discuss the poems "On Drinking."
"Return" is an extremely important work. In it, Tao Yuanming expresses his determined resolve to never again work for the government. And indeed, he never did after that. Didn't he mention that poverty had driven him to work for the government before? Yet later he wrote, "Although the hunger and cold are agony, it is worse to go against one's own conscience." Although hunger and cold make the body suffer keenly and are very hard to bear, it is even worse for me to go against my ideals. If I am forced to do something which goes against my integrity, morals, and ideals, I will be even more seriously ill. It will be as if I had a whole gamut of illnesses. My mental anguish will be even harder to endure than the physical suffering caused by hunger and cold. Tao Yuanming once wrote a letter to his eldest son entitled "A Letter to My Sons Yan, Etc." Yan was his eldest son. He said something to the effect that, "I must apologize to all of you. Because I cannot force myself to do something which goes against my ideals and my conscience, I have made all of you suffer hunger and cold along with me since your childhood." This reveals how difficult it must have been for Tao Yuanming to make the decision to resign and go into seclusion. The decision meant that in addition to enduring hunger and cold, Tao also had to toil for his own living. Our time is nearly up, so we will stop here for now.
To be continued