莲 Lotus


–《昭君怨 · 咏荷上雨》杨万里

Below the lotus at noon, on a boat my dream drifts;

Fragrance fills the West Lake, around me rises the mist.

— To the Tune of Zhāo Jūn Yuàn by Yang WanLi




To the south of the Yangtze River to pick the lotus seeds,

dense and flourishing are the lotus leaves,

between the leaves fish chases and swims.

— “To the South of Yangtze River”

Fish between lotus leaves, by Tian ShiGuang


–《清平乐 · 村居》辛弃疾

Most adorable is my naughty youngest son,

who is lying by the brook and podding lotus seeds.

— To the Tune of Qīng Píng Yuè, by Xin QiJi

Bian Shoumin, 1684-1752. Leaf E, Lotus Root and Pods. Retrieved from https://library.artstor.org/asset/AAPDIG_10312355410

Taking a nap amid the fragrance of lotus flower, watching red fish swim among the green round lotus leaves, picking a seed-pod and peeling out the fresh lotus seeds as snacks…

As the recent heat wave brings us into summer, I dreamt of lakes full of lotus near my house in China. For many Chinese, lotus is the carrier of summer memories.

In literature, as shown in the lines above, lotus is a common presence in poems depicting poetic and leisurely summer life. In addition to these relatively straightforward presence, lotus appears often as the protagonist of poems and proses, praised by the poets for its purity and noble spirits.

One famous example is the prose “On the Love of Lotus” ( 《爱莲说》 )by Zhou DunYi (周敦颐) in Song Dynasty, in which he summarizes the lotus’ nature as:


Growing out of murky mud yet untainted,

Rising through fresh water yet preens not.

If you have never seen lotus live, you would be surprised that the roots of such beautiful flowers are buried deep below the filthy mud at the bottom of a lake. Before standing elegantly in the middle of the lake, the stem and leaves of lotus grows out of mud and rises through water. Every night, the lotus flowers are submerged back into the water before rising up again at sunrise.

Magically, however, should you uncover the lotus roots (what we call “藕” in Chinese)from the mud, you would find their inside white and clean. In fact, the lotus roots can be eaten raw, with a pleasant taste of fresh sweetness and light fragrance.

Lotus Root

Even more astonishing are lotus flowers, despite being underwater every night, the flowers rarely carries any water drops upon them as they rise in the day. On a rainy day, unlike most plants with their leaves and petals covered with water, lotus leaves and petals remain dry. Upon landing on lotus, the raindrop would slide down the petals and convene at the center of the round lotus leaves. When the breeze blows past, the leaves sway and water would fall off into the lake. See, not only the filthy mud, the lotus does not even allow clear water to cling on itself!

Water drop on lotus leaf

Now, we understand the physical foundation of the descriptions “growing out of murky mud yet untainted, rising through fresh water yet preens not”. What spiritual quality of lotus is the poet, Zhou DunYi, praising with these lines?

According Zhou DunYi, the lotus guards its pure and upright spirit under the two conditions of “murky mud” and “fresh water”, remaining unaffected by either. As a common practice in Chinese literature, the lotus is personified here as “君子”, the moral ideal for literati class gentlemen under the Confucian canon.

To be “untainted by murky mud” is to hold one’s moral principles in an environment full of lures and temptations, not giving in to malpractices such as bribing, favoritism, and corruption (which are quite common in feudal bureaucracies). To “not preen after rising through fresh water”, on the other hand, ask that a “君子“ keeps his moral virtues (“fresh water”) as an internal principle, instead of becoming conceited and showing off his actions of nobility (“preening”). Due to its cleanness in regards to both mud and water, the lotus becomes a symbol of 君子 through the words of Zhou DunYi.

Besides purity and modesty, what other qualities of the lotus (君子) has Zhou DunYi praised?



Its stem is straight, with an opening right through the center.

It grows no vines, nor extra branches.

its fragrance spreads far, the farther the fresher.

It stands upright, quietly, with elegance.

It is to be admired from afar,

instead of being approached and tainted.

The first four lines refers to the lotus’ physical traits such as stem and fragrance, with the following moral equivalences: To be upright, and open to critics and advice. To not advance one’s growth (“stem”) with flattery and favors (“vines and branches”). To extend wide, positive impacts (“fragrance”) with one’s moral practices. To live one’s life in modesty, tranquility and elegance.

The last two lines refer to the special location of lotus flowers. Different from most flowers, lotus grows in the middle of water, unapproachable to passer-by on the coast. Despite one’s admiration to the lotus’ beauty, one cannot casually pick and play with the lotus flower as one could with other approachable land-based flowers.

Chen Hongshou(1598-1652). Lotus and Rocks. Retrieved from https://library.artstor.org/asset/AMICO_CL_103801298

In the literary context, poets often use lotus as an analogy for themselves, whose upholding of moral purity induces jealousy, leading to stagnant careers and even political persecution. Like the unapproachable lotus surrounded by water, the poets find themselves secluded, unable to make their noble aspirations heard, understood, and implemented. The poets depict the falling lotus in autumn to express their frustration and commitment to uphold their values.


No butterflies or bees,

shall follow her fragrance from afar.

When her red petals fall apart,

The lotus bloom’s bitter at heart.

踏莎行》贺铸 <To the Tune of Tà Suō Xíng> by He Zhu
Last two lines translated by Xu YuanChong

In the lines above, the poet uses the absence of butterflies and bees to symbolize his aspirations not being understood by those in power. It is thus not surprising that the poet himself is “bitter at heart”. This expression here, nevertheless, is in fact a pun. After the red lotus petals fall apart, all that is left is the lotus pod — the container of lotus seeds. Within each lotus seeds, there is a core plumule which we call the “lotus heart” (莲心). The lotus heart is used in traditional Chinese medicine and known for its bitterness. Thus, the lotus bloom is truly “bitter at heart”.

Lotus Flower and Pod, by Qi BaiShi

Speaking of the lotus heart, I would like to end this post with a line by a modern poet, Professor Yeh Chia-Ying of NanKai University:


For the heart of lotus seed would not die,

A thousand springs later,

it shall bloom and thrive.

These lines are inspired by an archaeological miracle of a lotus seed’s germination after being buried for over a thousand years.

Perhaps poetry are like these lotus seeds. After being asleep and buried in ink and rolls for thousand years, may they awake, bloom and thrive in our minds.


人间有味是清欢 Flavor of Life

What’s your favorite food?”

That’s hard to say, but something that I will never get tired of is porridge.” I replied.

But it has no flavor!”

“Plainness is a flavor in itself.”

Now I will stop being a philosophical hypocrite and admit that I also strongly favor spicy food and used to hate porridge myself. Until? Perhaps until plain porridge became a less readily accessible taste of hometown (usually not served at restaurants abroad because..well, it has no flavor). Or perhaps until the day I read a poem by Su Shi.




To the Tune of Huàn Xī Shā

Fine rain and slanted wind on a crisp dawn,

before sunshine brightens the river shore,

scattered willows are shrouded by light fog.

Look, the incoming spring

rises up in its flow.

Foams of snow and flowers of milk,

floating atop my tea cup by noon;

as we taste the spring plates filled

with greens and shoots freshly grown.

Where there be flavor thus simple,

true content of life is shown.

This poem depicts the poet’s day trip into the mountain with his friends in early spring. To ensure the smoothness of reading, I did not translate after the original character order or grammatical structure in Chinese, nor was I able to fully account for the nuances and literary context of all the fine expressions. But worry not! We shall now take a closer look.

As I envision myself in this poem, I see traditional ink paintings with light strokes in water color. No extravagance, everything is soft, casual and almost unintentional. The fine rain are carried and tilted by the light breeze, enclosing the world in refreshing moist as they fall. The chill of a dawn in early spring, no longer the bitter coldness of winter. An omnipresent whisper, seeping into one’s breath and clothes with silky threads of rain.

What else does the poet put in this paint of early spring? No dense flowers, crowds or laughters. Simply a few scattered willows on the sun-lit river shore. Not only that, we only see them through a layer of light fog. Picture in your mind the willow shoots of early spring. Looking up close, we see not yet the new leaves. Looking from afar, nevertheless, the twigs themselves have a tender greenness from within. Now, the golden sunlight shines through the hazy fog of morning rain, and a faint stroke of greenness brightens the river shore.

How does Su Shi describe this picture? “媚”. As an adjective, it means “charming, bright, cute”. As a verb, it is “to appreciate, to love”. A lively picture, an appreciative mind.

Fine rain, soft breeze, light fog, shimmering sunshine, scattered willow…charming, tranquil, yet perhaps a bit still? As a final stroke to the picture, Su Shi adds the spring. Every spring, as snow melts, fresh spring from the mountain, named Luo Spring, would flow into the River of Huai. As more and more spring joins, the river of Huai awakens, flows and swells. The picture is no longer quiet, we now hear the spring river singing the song of life.

Now we come to the second half of the poem, where Su Shi describes the picnic with his friends at noon . Snow foam and milk flower floating in cup…what exactly was he drinking? The answer is tea. Today, in mentioning good tea, we think of the extended loose leaf and clear, transparent liquid in delicate cups. Keep in mind, however, that this poem was written in Song Dynasty — a thousand years ago. Back then, tea was brewed with tea powder, quite like matcha in today’s Japan. According to a record at the time, 《侯鲭录》(‘The Record of HouJing’): “Tea is to be the opposite of ink, good tea ought to be white, and good ink black.” (“茶与墨正相反,茶欲白,墨欲黑”)Su Shi describes the foam on their brewed tea to be white as snow, rich and thick as blooming flowers made of milk. How fresh, pleasant it must have been!

What refreshments accompanied such good tea? The Spring Plate. In ancient times, to celebrate the first day of spring, people put seasonal vegetables and fruits in a plate, the Spring Plate, to share with friends. In their picnic, Su Shi and his friends try out the spring plates with fresh buckwheat shoot and bamboo shoot in them.

As an agriculture-based civilization, traditional Chinese values the synchronization with nature in all aspects of life. For instance, one should “get up as the sun rises and rest at sunset” — “日出而作,日落而息”. (Yes I do feel a bit guilty for my disoriented circadian cycle…) The same principle applies to cuisine, it is believed that one should eat fresh, seasonal food whenever possible.

In the poem, Su Shi and his friends not only enjoy a pure taste of spring from the fresh vegetable shoots, but also derives greater joy in following and being a part of the rhythm of nature.

Of flavors in life, there could be the strong, the ardent, the bustling, the prosperous; like the cracking oil on blazing fire, or the shiny brocade adorned with blooming flowers.

Or, there could be the light, the moderate, the simple, the ordinary; like the fine rain, the soft breeze, the light fog, the scattered willows, the flowing spring, the white tea, the fresh shoots…

As Su Shi puts it, of all flavors, joys, experiences in the Realm of Men, one eventually returns to the long-lasting content in the ordinary day-to-day life. A picnic in early spring with tea and salad. What could be simpler? Should we examine our life as Su Shi does in this poem, every detail can be a source of joy, plainness is the flavor of content.

Perhaps years later, I will remember this summer of 2020. Sitting at this wooden table by myself, watching the silhouette of the Tower in the setting sun, tasting the porridge I cooked with barley and golden rice, and listening the cicadas’ first evening song. On a campus so out-worldly, in a silence so rare.

夜行黄沙道中 A Walk at Night





— 辛弃疾 《西江月 · 夜行黄沙道中》To the Tune of Xī Jiānɡ Yuè by Xin QiJi

Grammatically, there is no strict tense in Chinese. Borrowing some tense structure from English, I would claim this poem an eternal present-continuous. Whenever it appears in my mind, it draws me into an evening walk with the poet. Although I am not physically there, Mr. Poet is telling me in real time what he sees, smells, feels, and hears. Now, press the play button and off we go:

Perfect background audio for this post, uploaded by The Guild of Ambiance

empty line


Bright moon, flickering twig, magpie startled;

Chill breeze, mid-night, cicadas buzzle.

“The moon is bright, I see a twig flickering — ah, it must be a magpie startled by the moonlight. I feel a chill breeze in the middle of the night, the breeze wakes the cicadas and accompanies their buzzes. “


In the fragrance of paddy flowers, speaking of a harvest year;

Listen, a field full of frog croaks.

“You wonder: who is speaking of the coming harvest of this year? I do not know, perhaps I am walking by some villagers chatting in the field, perhaps I am talking about the harvest to someone, perhaps the fragrant paddy is telling us of its forthcoming ripe. We sit patiently, listening to the frog’s song of summer, savoring our hope for a fruitful autumn.”


Seven to eight, grains of stars, the sky beyond;

Two to three, drops of rain, the mountains in front.

“One moment, my mind flies beyond the domes of sky to the stars. The next moment, raindrops bring me back to the mountains I walk upon. One moment, the stars flicker, the next moment, the rain drizzles. So random, casual, unintentional. As I walk, I let my consciousness travel. “


The cottage of old times, by the forest it is near;

Turning at the brook’s bridge, and suddenly they appear.

“Perhaps my walk does lead to somewhere. If I recall correctly, there should be a cottage around here. I know it is built by the woods, but where is it? It must be very close….ah, here it is! A surprise amid expectation, what a pleasant encounter! “

This poem creates within my mind a flowing state of wander and relaxation; a state of extending my senses toward all nuances in my environment; a state of concentration and content with the present; a state of hopeful yet patient expectation for the future.

A Leisurely Prelude

Tired of being stuck at home?

Puppies Playing beside a Palm Tree and Garden Rock, by Unidentified Artist in 15th century (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections)

“There’s nothing new happening”, “Every day feels the same”, “I feel rotten and unproductive”, “Agitated yet procrastinating, cannot bring myself to do anything yet tired of doing nothing”.

Yes, for those of us who are too used to a vibrant campus/workplace where a hundred things happen every day, the monotonous, uneventful life under quarantine can turn out poisonous to some extent.

Say, what was the last time you had such a long period of unstructured leisure (in case you are not familiar with it, the word ‘leisure’ approximately means ’empty google calendar’)? It sounds almost ridiculous, but think about it: how often do we, in today’s society, live with absolute leisure? We may be a bunch of expert planners, but when it comes to “dealing with” leisure, we are ignorant as kids (Ah but no! Just the opposite! Ignorant as Grown-ups!)

Therefore, in this series, I will share with you a few of my favorite Poems of Leisure–an actual category in Chinese poetry, in fact. These poems have enabled me to enjoy and (faintly) appreciate shelter-in-place much more than I otherwise would.

The sun slowly slides down, the wind sways the leaves and their shadows, the air smells like grass and green tea and some flower I don’t know, my mind swims in lines of poetry, my fingers types out this very word, I feel… I wish you could feel something similar as you read on…

Living the Poetry — 《静夜思》

“Good literature is such that one may return to them again and again, and get something new out of them at each stage of life.”

I forgot where I first read this sentence, but it has manifested itself often in my experience with poetry. From time to time, I would stumble upon an eureka moment, in which an old, known line of poetry takes on a brand new layer of meaning. In such moments, the lines grant meanings to experiences, and experiences grant meanings to the lines.

One such moment was when I was reminded of the poem 《静夜思》<Thoughts on a Silent Night> two weeks ago, at the last full moon. As mentioned in my post ‘Frost on the Ground’, I was in bed ready to sleep when I saw moonlight shining through the curtain onto the ground.

As most other Chinese, I have learned the poem by heart even before school. Due to the extreme familiarity, this sequence of 20 characters for me felt closer to the Alphabet Song than a piece of literature. Much as I am deeply touched by many other poems on the theme of moon and nostalgia, the meaning of 《静夜思》 has laid dormant.

The awakening is the key. The moonlight on the night of April 7th awakened the poem from my memory. As I glanced at the ground, I thought: ‘Aha, Li Bai (the poet) is right! It indeed looks like frost!’ Following that, naturally, I thought of the lines:


My head lifts, as I gaze at the moon,
My head lowers, as I start missing home.

Then these lines awakened some nostalgia within me.

Essentially, the poem facilitated, as an intermediate agent, my experience of falling into nostalgia after seeing (unexpectedly) silvery moonlight on the ground. And that was exactly what Li Bai experienced. That is what the whole poem is about: the emotional journey of the ‘caught by surprise’, the wonder, the realization, then the un-asked-for yet unshakable nostalgia. For me, the poem 《静夜思》has awaken. Now, I not only know what it means, I know how it feels.

One may understand a poem by reading it, imagining and empathizing what the experience depicted is like, just as one does with most stories or films. Occasionally, however, we get the honour of living a poem, or of encountering a poem that we have lived through. That is when the extreme beauty of emotional resonance kicks in.

Remember that time your friend shared his/her feelings on something and you felt exactly the same? As humans, we love emotional resonances — we need them. However, from my experience, such resonances are rare, and we more often ‘meet’ them by chance than ‘find’ them by strive. As written in the Analects of Confucius:


“As my friends arrive from afar, oh what fortune, what joy!"

The poems are the Friends from Afar. They are friends from a different space, a different time, yet who carry in their words what we feel and what we live.

Poetry is mutual. If we understand the poems, the poems understand us.

Poetry is personal. The poems speak of our most subtle and intimate feelings with just the right words.

Poetry is universal. When same words from a man centuries ago touch you and me, in our distinct ways, we both live the poetry.

《静夜思》唐·李白 Thoughts on a Silent Night

By Li Bai [Tang Dynasty]

Original Text



Please see this Youtube video for pronunciation of the poem, you may as well refer to the alternative translation provided the video provides.


I have rendered this character-by-character annotation from personal knowledge. If you see any mistakes, please comment or contact.


My Own Translation:

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. 

地上霜 Frost on the Ground



——李白 《静夜思》

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:

Family Reunion under Full Moon, picture from so.photophoto.cn for non-commercial use.

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?

Closing Note

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>.

月上柳梢头 The Moon Rises above the Willow

Word of Caution: This post is a bit more personal than most of my other ones.

Just yesterday, I was telling a friend that I don’t often get nostalgic or sentimental.

–Well, if it wasn’t for the moon.

Koson, “Willow and the Moon,” from the book “Japanese Ghost Paintings: The Sanyutei Encho Collection at Zensho-an

In the past two weeks it’s been getting really warm here in California. Tonight, it feels like a typical summer night in May or June in Beijing. Out of coincidence, I discovered my old uniform t-shirt from my middle school. Upon invitation from the cool breeze outside, I went for a jog.

The air smells like baked grass seeds after a day of intense sunshine, I find this a universal “smell of summer”. Five years ago, it smelled just like this.

To be precise, the baked-grass smell plus the faint fragrance of roses around the playground in my middle school in Beijing. That was in May and June 2015, the two months before I left abroad, the two months when I voluntarily stayed at school for evening study sessions every day.

We would jog on the 400m track every evening during the 8:00–8:30pm study break. One time as we passed the south-west corner of the playground, I saw the full moon rise above the trees, floating beside the golden clock on the red brick teaching building. I remember, right there, right then, I thought of these lines:

去年元夜时 ,花市灯如昼。
Last year at the Lantern Festival,
On the flower fair, lanterns bright as day.

As the moon rises above the willow,
There we met in dusk’s faded glow.

— 欧阳修 《生查子》<To the Tune of Shēng Zhā Zǐ> , by OuYang Xiu

As mentioned in the post <Frost on the Ground>, the Lantern Festival is on the 15th of the first month in Lunar Calendar, or the first full moon of the year.

In ancient times, this is the only day when unmarried young people — women especially — are implicitly allowed to step out of their houses to join the celebration of releasing lanterns for good fortune (or attending a clandestine rendezvous under the full moon). If that is not enough deprivation of individual freedom, the young people back then had no say on their marriages and mostly end up marrying a total stranger chosen by their parents. Even without family feuds, most young couples would still find themselves in a Romeo & Juliette scenario and few ends up happily ever after.

I am very sorry, but there is a second half to this poem.

This year at the Lantern Festival,
The moon and lanterns remain here still.
Where we met last year, I stand alone;
My tears flood, my sleeves soaked.

— 欧阳修 《生查子》<To the Tune of Shēng Zhā Zǐ> , by OuYang Xiu

It is not full moon today. Here I stand on this grass field. I can smell baked-grass-seed, this smell of California spring/summer that you must have grown so familiar with. Here I stand under this starry night, under this sky that has watched you stand here alone in the past four years.

Men may sorrow, rejoice, part, reunion;
Moon may brighten, dim, wax, and wane;
Ever changing, never as planned.

— 苏轼 《水调歌头》<To the Tune of Shuǐ Diào Gē Tóu , by Su Shi

I suppose it is as it is.

Moon in Water by Unidentified Artist of 13th century (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections)
Flower in Mirror by Chen HongShou (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections)