The ‘Plum Rainy Days’ of May

Beijing (English) - - CHERISHED POEMS - Trans­lated by Wang Qi­uhai, pol­ished by Roberta Raine

May is the sea­son when plums ripen and turn yel­low, and is called the “plum rainy pe­riod” in south­ern China, when in­ter­mit­tent driz­zle can last for months. The pic­turesque scenery of this sea­son al­ways gives great in­spi­ra­tion to po­ets.

Swal­lows are giv­ing birth to their young and the plums are turn­ing yel­low; bro­ken clouds and driz­zle hover over­head. A lone boat dreams of a big catch; ev­ery­one is busy is mak­ing bam­boo hats.

A round fan helps me to pen leisurely po­ems; I rinse my mouth with cold spring wa­ter be­fore burn­ing in­cense alone. Pros­per­ity pre­vails ev­ery­where in the fra­grant breeze; one need not be in a palace to en­joy the long lovely days.

On a rainy day in May 1203 in a house called Feng Yue Xuan (“wind and moon pav­il­ion”) in Shaox­ing, Zhe­jiang Prov­ince, poet Lu You (1125– 1210) of the South­ern Song Dy­nasty (1127–1279) wrote this beau­ti­ful poem on white rice pa­per, which he ti­tled Xia Ri (“a sum­mer day”).

Dur­ing the South­ern Song Dy­nasty, tast­ing plum wine and burn­ing in­cense was the way both up­per-class and or­di­nary peo­ple spent the plum rainy days. On that hot day in May in 1203, Lu You burned in­cense in his study and fanned him­self with a round fan. Look­ing at the thick driz­zle out­side the win­dow, Lu sud­denly re­mem­bered some­thing. He hur­riedly sent for his wife and asked her to fetch the best jar of plum wine in the cel­lar. This jar of wine was made with a se­cret recipe that was never made known to oth­ers. Then he sat at his desk, pa­tiently wait­ing for an old friend who was go­ing to hear him tell a story that hap­pened in the cap­i­tal city of Lin'an the pre­vi­ous year. Star­ing at the poem Xia Ri that he had just writ­ten, with the ink still wet, Lu let his thoughts drift back to the plum rainy sea­son a year ago.

It was the year 1190. Be­cause Lu had ad­vised Em­peror Guang­zong (reign: 1190–1195) to al­low a free air­ing of opin­ions from his sub­or­di­nates and to keep him­self strictly in soli­tude, se­nior ad­vi­sor He Dan ac­cused Lu of giv­ing “in­ap­pro­pri­ate” ad­vice to the em­peror. He Dan's col­leagues at the court rose to­gether to at­tack Lu, who was filled with in­dig­na­tion and left the cap­i­tal with his fam­ily, head­ing south­ward for his home in Shaox­ing. Back home, he named his old man­sion Feng Yue Xuan and set­tled down in seclu­sion, be­com­ing in­dif­fer­ent to politics.

Em­peror Ning­zong (reign: 1195–1225) ad­mired Lu's tal­ents so much that he is­sued an edict ask­ing Lu to come to the court to com­pile his­tor­i­cal books. Be­cause of this op­por­tu­nity, Lu was able to ob­serve and get to know more about the daily life of the court. In April the fol­low­ing year, Lu compiled two books en­ti­tled Liangchao Shilu (“true records of two em­per­ors”), which doc­u­mented the reigns of em­per­ors Xiao­zong and Guang­zong, and San­chao Shi (“his­tory of three dy­nas­ties”). When these books were com­pleted, he left the cap­i­tal for his home­town.

In May 1203, Lu re­turned to his home­town of Shaox­ing. When poet Xin Qiji (1140–1207), a spe­cial court envoy to Zhe­jiang Prov­ince and chief of Shaox­ing Pre­fec­ture, learned of this news, he im­me­di­ately wrote to Lu to say that he would pay him a visit the next day. Lu liked this young man very much. Af­ter Lu had been dismissed from of­fice and re­turned home years ago, the two men had had sev­eral heart-to­heart talks about state af­fairs at Lu's home, Feng Yue Xuan.

Con­sid­er­ing Xin a close friend, Lu was ready to en­ter­tain him with his trea­sured plum wine. As soon as the two men sat down, Xin picked up the piece of pa­per and started to re­cite the poem Xia Ri, with­out even ex­chang­ing greet­ings with his host. Then, Lu gave him an ac­count of what he had ob­served and felt dur­ing his stay in Lin'an the pre­vi­ous year. Thus, these two em­i­nent fig­ures of the South­ern Song Dy­nasty were en­gaged in an­other heart-to-heart chat.

In the Song Dy­nasty (AD 960–1279), “brew­ing wine with green plums” was a catch­phrase used to ex­press a care­free and op­ti­mistic at­ti­tude to­ward life and a no­ble dis­po­si­tion. Per­haps when Lu and Xin softly chanted the line “pros­per­ity pre­vails ev­ery­where in the fra­grant breeze; one need not be in a palace to en­joy the long lovely days” on that misty day in May, it re­minded them of this ex­pres­sion.

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