Spring has arrived in Beijing. It has such a nice sound to it, “Spring in Beijing.” It’s a short season here, so you have to really take advantage while it lasts. My favorite trees are the cherry blossoms, of which I have many fond memories from my time in Jeju. To me they are an emblem of all my favorite things about Asia. Not all flowers can give off such a sense of youthfulness and hope. Take, for example, carnations, which are an elderly flower if ever there was one. Magnolias might be considered middle-aged: firm, established and resilient.
Looking up Chinese trees and flowers has taken me down an Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole of symbolism. For example, the Chinese Cedar, used in certain dishes and Chinese medicine, represents fatherhood1. Apricot blossoms, meanwhile, seem to represent fleeting beauty. You can also find this symbolism in Chinese poetry. I have two poems I’d like to share, related to flowers. They come from 100 Ancient Chinese Poems, a book I picked up at a local bookstore.
I love the first poem, “The Plum Blossoms,” because it reminds me that beauty exists in contrast to its sometimes bleak surroundings, and in fact makes things more beautiful around it. The plum blossoms could be snow because they are something white seen on a cold day, but in fact they are flowers, as evidenced by their fragrance. They are small and solitary, but they transform the entire scene.
梅花 (méi huā) – The Plum Blossoms
(Song Dynasty) Wang Anshi
Translated by Wang Jianzhong
qiáng jiǎo shù zhī méi ，
líng hán dú zì kāi 。
yáo zhī bú shì xuě ，
wèi yǒu àn xiāng lái 。
In the nook of a wall a few plum sprays
Blossom alone on the bleak winter days.
From afar I see they can not be snows,
For a stealthy breath of perfume hither blows.2
This second poem I want to share, “On the Tomb-Visiting Day,” is related to this weekend’s holiday, Tomb-Sweeping Day or Qingming Festival (清明节, qīngmíng jié). “Qingming” literally means “pure brightness.” It’s the day when families visit the tombs of their deceased relatives to take care of the tombs and honor their ancestors. “Pure brightness” really captures the feeling of the holiday more than “Tomb-Sweeping Day,” I think, because although it’s a day to remember the dead, it’s also a time to be outside and appreciate nature. This poem captures the mix of melancholy and vernal peace.
清 明 (Qīng Míng) – On the Tomb-Visiting Day
(Tang Dynasty) Du Mu
Translated by Wang Jianzhong
Qīng míng shí jié yǔ fēn fēn ，
清 明 时 节 雨 纷 纷 ，
lù shàng xíng rén yù duàn hún 。
路 上 行 人 欲 断 魂 。
Jiè wèn jiǔ jiā hé chù yǒu，
借 问 酒 家 何 处 有 ，
mù tóng yáo zhǐ xìng huā cūn。
牧 童 遥 指 杏 花 村 。
Ceaseless fall the drizzles all the dismal day,
A traveller feels all forlorn on his lonely way.
When asked where could be found a tavern room,
A cowboy points to yonder hamlet of apricot bloom.3
Certainly, flowers do not go unappreciated in China. As soon as trees start blooming, you’ll see people out taking pictures or just basking in colorful avenues of flowering trees and bushes. I’m lucky to live near an international hotel with a carefully tended promenade of sorts running parallel with the train tracks. It’s where I usually walk my dog, Penelope, who definitely enjoys the greenery.
As restrictions on movement are relaxing around Beijing, more and more people are coming outside with a renewed appreciation of nature. To all those staying home now, I hope you can feel this same sense of relief and gratefulness soon!
- Francois. “Beijing Trees (varieties, facts and allergies).” Living in Beijing, March 19, 2013, http://www.beijingrelocation.com/blog/beijing-trees/
- Wang Anshi. “The Plum Blossoms.” 100 Ancient Chinese Poems, Sinoligua Co., Ltd, 2016, pp 107.
- Du Mu. “On the Tomb-Visiting Day.” 100 Ancient Chinese Poems, Sinoligua Co., Ltd, 2016, pp 95.