The Poetic Na­ture of the Chi­nese Quince

Beijing (English) - - POEM - Trans­lated by Zhang Lu Edited by Mark Zuiderveld

Mugua” (“Chi­nese quince”) is one of the most well-known po­ems from the Book of Po­etry. This poem de­scribes a young cou­ple’s love life in an­cient times, and ex­changes of gifts. It goes:

She throws a quince to me;

I give her a green jade

Not in re­turn, you see,

But to show an ac­quain­tance made. She throws a peach to me;

I give her a white jade

Not in re­turn, you see,

But to show friend­ship made. She throws a plum to me;

I give her jasper fair

Not in re­turn, you see,

But to show love fore’er.

When a young man and woman fell in love with each other, the woman would give the man mel­ons, peaches or plums and the man would give her a piece of jade. Peo­ple later coined this un­so­phis­ti­cated ex­pres­sion of love from over 2,500 years ago into a phrase—“giv­ing a fine piece of jade in re­turn for a Chi­nese quince.”

The Chi­nese quince, peach and plum de­scribed in the poem are no longer sim­ply types of fruit, but to­kens of love be­tween a man and a woman. The sym­bolic mean­ing they carry is clear. In the ear­li­est un­der­stand­ings of the an­cient Chi­nese, lianas, mel­ons and other fruit are con­sid­ered a sym­bols of strong fer­til­ity and fam­ily pros­per­ity rep­re­sented by the lianas’ fea­tures of long cirri, fruit and seeds.

There are sev­eral sim­i­lar ex­pres­sions of love recorded in the lit­er­a­ture of later gen­er­a­tions, as de­scribed in the poem “Mugua.” Hav­ing grown up to­gether, Qin Jia, a poet from the East­ern Han Dy­nasty (AD 25–220), and his wife, Xu Shu, were deeply in love. Qin Jia wrote the poem Li­u­jun zengfu shi (“A Poem for My Wife”), say­ing that be­fore he left in the early morn­ing, he looked around the empty house, feel­ing as if he had seen his wife busy with house­work. He couldn’t look af­ter his wife, who was ac­tu­ally bedrid­den. He looked at the pre­cious things given by his wife such as the gold-in­lay comb and the glazed bowl, but he could only ex­press his love with the quince de­scribed in the Book of Po­etry as a re­cip­ro­cal gift. Chi­nese quinces are not valu­able, yet it‘s suf­fi­cient to rep­re­sent the poet’s deep love for his wife. This poem takes the Chi­nese quince as a muse for ro­man­tic love.

For a long pe­riod of time af­ter “Mugua” was writ­ten, it was not con­sid­ered a poem about love, but a poem cre­ated by some­one from the Wei State (1115–209 BC) to eu­lo­gise the Duke Huan of the Qi State (1122–221 BC) for sav­ing the Wei State.

In the win­ter of 660 BC, north­ern tribes at­tacked the Wei State. Duke Wen rushed to the Qi State to ask for help. Two years later, Duke Huan of the Qi State helped Duke Wen to re­store his state. Wei’s power re­cov­ered rapidly. Due to the his­tor­i­cal fact that Duke Huan helped re­store the Wei State, Maoshi xu (“Mao’s Preface to the Book of Po­etry”) be­lieves that “Mugua” was cre­ated by some­one from Wei to eu­lo­gise Duke Huan. This opin­ion was the main in­ter­pre­ta­tion of “Mugua” in the fol­low­ing hun­dreds of years.

Among the in­ter­pre­ta­tions of later gen­er­a­tions, the opin­ion that in­ter­prets the poem as gift­ing be­tween a man and woman has been more com­monly ac­cepted. Zhu Xi (1130–1200), a philoso­pher liv­ing dur­ing the Song Dy­nasty (AD 960–1279), first pro­posed this in­ter­pre­ta­tion in Shiji zhuan (“Com­men­taries on Po­etry”). “It goes that when I’m pre­sented with some­thing small, I should re­turn a pre­cious trea­sure; but even so, I don’t con­sider it enough and only hope that we will be good friends for­ever. It feels like a de­scrip­tion of gift­ing be­tween a man and woman.”

“Mugua” has been passed down over thou­sands of years, ex­press­ing the sim­ple emo­tions of an­cient Chi­nese. To­day, this oath of love for “giv­ing a fine jade in re­turn for a Chi­nese quince” still ex­ists in the cus­toms of mi­nor­ity eth­nic groups in China. The Zhuang peo­ple’s cus­tom of “throw­ing silk balls” and the Buyi peo­ple’s cus­tom of “throw­ing pack­ets of grain” are still fondly re­mem­bered.

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