–《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”
–《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
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.
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!
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.
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”.
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.