Poetry to Dispel the Summer Heat
According to the Chinese solar calendar, which is based on the sun’s position in the zodiac, summer is divided into two terms, called Minor Heat and Major Heat . In many parts of China, no matter which period it is, summer can be unbearably hot. To find some cool air during the solar term of Minor Heat in the scorching summer, many ancient scholars and poets would either stay in the shade or sit by waterside pavilions. The famous poem of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907) Shanting xiari (“a summer day in a mountain pavilion”) is an excellent work created by poet Gao Pian (AD 821–887) when he was in an exalted poetic mood, enjoying the cool in a pavilion with a friend.
Long is the summer day and thick is the shade; A house and pavilion are mirrored in the pond. A gentle breeze ripples the water surface; Roses spread their fragrance on the trellis.
In this poem, Gao depicted a vivid summer scene for later generations of people to enjoy. This poem makes people feel cool like a fresh breeze, but what people don’t know is that Gao was living in great misery when he wrote this poem.
Gao was born in a family of generals that commanded the imperial guard troops. Despite his love for poetry and literature, Gao never forgot this mission, and so he concealed his poetic and literary gifts.
During the solar term of Minor Heat in AD 883, the hot weather made people irritable. To find peace of mind, Gao invited his friend Choe Chiwon (AD 857–?) to a pavilion built beside the pond at his house. Their cheerful talk relieved their boredom and dispelled the heat. Choe was an outstanding Confucian scholar who had come to China from Silla (presentday South Korea) in the late Tang Dynasty, and Gao appreciated his literary talent. The close poetic friendship between these two men—the foreigner Choe, a Confucian official sent to China from his homeland, and Gao, a military general and the Governor of Huainan, has long delighted people.
After arriving in Yangzhou, Choe stayed at an inn and led a hardscrabble life. Gao took good care of him, asked the town’s Bureau of Reception to lend him an official residence, and gave him a subsistence subsidy of 20 strings of cash each month. Later, Choe missed his family, but no messenger could send his family letters across the sea. Later Choe learnt of a ship that was sailing between Silla and Yangzhou, so he wanted to sell medicine to pay for the postage to send letters home. Gao granted him three months’ money for entertainment to meet his urgent need. Choe was always grateful to Gao for taking such good care of him.
At this point, Gao had been dismissed from his official post by the imperial court for more than a year. Choe knew the anger and chagrin in Gao’s heart very well. To dispel discontent in this frustrated general’s heart, Choe said, “As the old Chinese saying goes, ‘ When the mind is still, you will be calm, cool and collected.’ Actually, when we encounter bad luck in life, it’s better to maintain our composure instead of complaining.”
Choe’s words shocked Gao, who never expected a foreign scholar to be so strong and calm inside. Gao’s head suddenly became sober and his heart became quiet. As the green trees’ thick shade, pavilions and ripples on the water’s surface came into his sight, he really felt the cool of the summer day. In an exalted poetic mood, Gao entered the house and wrote Shanting xiari while sitting beside a square table.
The Chinese solar term of Minor Heat has a special meaning because of Shanting xiari. Today, when we read this famous poem about escaping the summer heat and enjoying the cool, we can still feel a cool rush running through the body and dispelling the unbearable heat. At this moment, readers seem to have timetravelled to the world where Gao lived 1,000 years ago and personally experienced what Gao felt that summer.