Before my bed, moonlight on the ground,
Silver shines that I first thought to be frost.
My head lifts, as I gaze at the moon,
My head lowers, as I start missing home.
<Thoughts on a Silent Night> by LiBai
My own translation (unless otherwise noted). More details of the poem see here.
Today is April 23th, 2020, in Gregorian Calendar.
In lunar calendar, it is 庚子年 四月 初一, the 1st day of the Fourth Month, in the year of ‘Gēng zi’.
When was the last time that you saw a full moon?
By lunar calendar, full moons are always on the Fifteenth （“十五”） of the lunar month. Today, I am going to write about my latest meeting with the full moon two weeks ago.
Like most modern Chinese people, I do not pay attention very often to what day it is in Lunar calendar (except for near Lunar New Year). Therefore, I did not know it was a “十五” until I climbed in bed and turned off the light.
There it was. Soft silvery light that simmered through the curtain and spread on the ground in front of my bed. It looked just like frost.
If I have never heard of the poem 《静夜思》<Thoughts on a Silent Night>, this would have meant nothing. Believe me, however, that few Chinese would see this ‘frost on the ground’ without thinking of home.
“But surely”, you might wonder, “not all Chinese people have read this particular poem?” (Especially given that the poem was written in 726 AD — that is, 1300 years ago)
Indeed, 《静夜思》has transcended its original category of classical poetry into the realm of idiom and cultural imprint. This short twenty-character verse truly attest to the Chinese expression of “家喻户晓”, which means : “Known by all families and households.” This is a poem that walked out of the boundary of elite’s written books into the mouths and minds of generations of civilians. With its simple language (any preschool Chinese children today may understand and recite it by hearing) and straight-forward theme, 《静夜思》is the incontestable representative of the relationship between full moon and nostalgia in Chinese culture.
The moon, especially the full moon, is an omnipresent symbol for home, family and nostalgia in Chinese culture. To fully understand that, let us examine from the perspectives of Time and Space.
Recall the last two lines of 《静夜思》<Thoughts on a Silent Night>:
My head lifts, as I gaze at the moon, My head lowers, as I start missing home.
What crossed the poet’s mind as he lifts then lowers his head? No one can tell for sure except for Li Bai himself. However, I can share with you my thoughts as I looked through the curtain at the moon that night two weeks ago.
“Is my family watching this beautiful, bright moon right now?” — Nope, they are in a different time zone.
Obviously, those in 8th century Tang Dynasty were not aware of time difference. In the poem 《望月怀远》<Watching the Moon and Missing Afar> , the poet writes:
"As the moon rises on the sea, all places under the sky share this same moment."
–张九龄 Zhang JiuLing
‘All places under the sky’– all of one’s loved ones, no matter where they are.
Despite the fact that the Earth is round and time difference exists, the temporal universality of the full moon persists. One knows that his/her family could be watching the same full moon and missing them at the same time (or within a few hours), regardless of their separation in distance. This is as close to telepathy as it gets for those living in the 8th century without Zoom.
“The moon turns full again, it’s been a month since I last saw a full moon.”
Notice the recursion here? The last time I saw the full moon, I missed my family and wished to return, and here I am, a month later, still away from home with the same old nostalgia. As it waxes and wanes, the moon is a ruthless reminder of the passage of time.
Speaking of this, let us return briefly to the Lunar Calendar. As the name suggests, the Lunar Calendar is based on the phases of the moon. The new moon is always on the 1st (“初一”) and the full moon always on the 15th (“十五”). Looking at the shape of the moon, one can easily track the approximate date within a month in the Lunar Calendar.
Given the use the Lunar Calendar, it is not hard to understand the significance of the moon in traditional Chinese culture. The moon is an intrinsic chronological symbol and a foundation for most major festivals. For instance: (we will mention and elaborate on each of these festivals in later posts)
- New Year (春节): 1st of the First Month (First new moon)
- Lantern Festival (上元节): 15th of the First Month (First full moon)
- Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节): 15th of the Eighth Month (the largest full moon)
To sum up, moon is a symbol of nostalgia/homesickness in Chinese culture for its significance as “the shared moment” and “the passage of time”.
Now you may ask: what is so special about the Full Moon? Why is the full moon more significant than other moon phases in the context of nostalgia?
For that, we move on to the perspective of…
“I ought not to hold a grudge against the moon,
but why is it always full when we part?"
— 苏轼 Su Shi
This is a quote from 《水调歌头 · 明月几时有》, <To the tune of Shuǐ Diào Gē Tóu>, arguably second most popular moon poetry ( right after <Thoughts on a Silent Night>).
The line sounds a bit out-of-no-where? Bear with me, there are quite a few stories to unpack here.
First, the poet seems to be blaming the moon: ‘Why do you turn full when I part with my family/friends?’ What’s so wrong about the moon turning Full?
In Chinese, a full moon is usually called in two ways : “满月” or “圆月”. As you may have guessed, “月” is the character for ‘moon’. In the first case, “满” as a character stands for the combined idea of ‘full’, ‘bountiful’, and ‘satisfying’. In the second case, “圆” as a character signifies the shape ’round’ at face value. However, in the context of “圆月” as the full moon, people often associate “圆” with the expression “团圆“, which refers to a full family reunion (think about round table dinner!). Going back to the quote, we can see that the character used here to describe full moon is “圆”. The picture below illustrates a common cultural image for the character in this context:
Thus, the full moon, with its spacial trait of perfect roundness and completeness, is a symbol of family reunion without any member missing.
In this quote, however, the full moon only bothers the poet by reminding him of his loneliness after parting with his family. The poet questions the moon as if believing the moon to be consciously mocking him with its fullness. Deeper down, one can almost hear the poet’s frustration at Fate: “Why set us apart when the moon indicates reunion month after month?”
Fortunately, the poet managed to resolve his ‘grudge’ towards the moon at the end of this poem, when he wrote:
"I only wish we live long, safe and sound,
Sharing the same moon, though miles apart."
This is the canonical example of the moon transcending spatial difference in Chinese literature. The poet eventually comes to terms with the inevitable partings in life, and finds consolation in the longevity and spatial universality of the moon.
Even today, with all the modern knowledge of celestial bodies I grew up with, this idea still struck me with awe from time to time. Whoever we are, wherever we are on Earth, are we not just men, looking at the same moon?
In this post, we looked at the relationship between moon and homesickness/nostalgia in Chinese poetry, especially the full moon as a symbol of family reunion. An ever-present element throughout our analysis is the idea of universality as the anchor of connection. As a prominent celestial body, the moon embodies both temporal and spatial universality — it is shared across distance as both a visual object and a calendarial indicator.
In ancient times, there were not even photographs, and communication by letters took months (if ever) to deliver. The moon — and poems about it — carry the unchanging care, love, and faith that connects men amid the uncertainties and unknowns.
Some of my personal thoughts on poetry & life experience based on 《静夜思》<Thoughts on a Silent Night>.