Homesickness on the Double Ninth Festival
At age 17, the Tang poet Wang Wei (AD 699–759) wrote the following poem titled Jiuyue jiuri yi Shandong xiongdi (“on the Mountain Holiday thinking of my brothers in Shandong”): All alone in a strange land, I am twice as homesick on this day; When my brothers climb the mountain with dogwood in hand, they would miss me from far away.
The ninth day of the ninth lunar month was turned into a festival in ancient China—the Double Ninth Festival. It was first celebrated during the Warring States Period (475–221 BC), but it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907) that it was formally made into a folk festival. Ancient Chinese spent the festival by climbing mountains, wearing dogwood sprays, drinking wine and admiring chrysanthemums.
The tradition of wearing dogwood on the Double Ninth Festival first formed in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC– AD 24). In Xijing zaji (“a miscellany of the Western Capital”) by scholar Ge Hong (AD 284–364), the tradition of “wearing dogwood, eating rice cakes and drinking chrysanthemum wine on Double Ninth Day” was mentioned by Concubine Qi’s (a consort of Emperor Gaozu) lady-in-waiting Jia Peilan when she was reminiscing about past events in the palace. It is believed among common folk to be of great value, therefore Double Ninth Festival is also called the “Dogwood Festival.”
The tradition of climbing a mountain on the Double Ninth Festival was first recorded in a legend included in Xuqi xieji, a collection of strange stories by litterateur Wu Jun (AD 469–520) of the Liang Dynasty (AD 502–557) during the Northern and Southern Dynasties (AD 429–581), “Huan Jing, a man from Runan, had been studying under Fei Changfang for years. One day, Fei told Huan, ‘A misfortune will befall your family on this Double Ninth Day. You’d better hurry back home and ask red bags to be made, in which dogwood is to be filled. Ask your family members to each wear a bag around their arms then climb a mountain and drink chrysanthemum wine. Only in this way can the misfortune be avoided.’ Huan did as instructed and led his whole family to ascend the mountain. When Huan and his family returned home at sunset, they found their pet animals and birds all dead. After learning the news, Fei said, ‘The misfortune has gone.’ The present tradition of ascending a height, drinking wine and women wearing a bag of dogwood is probably related to the story.” In this short record, “the whole family” is worth noticing, emphasising the festival’s significance: getting together with family.
This holiday was supposed to be spent with family. Wang Wei felt lonesome and wrote the poem. Young as he was, Wang Wei was considered a promising man in his political career. As Wang came from a common family, he was more mature than his peers.
To earn a better living for his mother and five younger brothers and sisters, Wang decided to leave his hometown for the capital. Officialdom was seen as the best choice for scholars in ancient China, so Wang, the eldest son, felt obligated to bring glory to his family. When Wang left his home for Chang’an, he was only 15 years old. During the four years since he left, he never returned.
This would be the third one. He missed his family a lot. During his three years in Chang’an, he didn’t experience the fruits of success in his career, but only bitterness and frustrations. He couldn’t feel more lonesome. The noise outside reminded him of his mother and his younger brothers and sisters far away at home. All the frustrations he met with came back to haunt him, increasing his homesickness.
All the bitterness he felt could only understood by family, but no family was here with him. What could a 17-year- old boy do to relieve his loneliness without family nearby? He could do nothing better but express homesickness through poetry, his eyes still glistening with tears.