The ‘Plum Rainy Days’ of May
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.