Lotuses in Chinese Literature
By poolside over there Grow reed and lotus bloom. There is a lady fair Whose heart is full of gloom. She does nothing in bed; Like streams her tears are shed.
By poolside over there Grow reed and orchid bloom. There is a lady fair Heart-broken, full of gloom. Tall and with a curled head, She does nothing in bed.
By poolside over there
Grow reed and lotus thin.
There is a lady fair
Tall and with double chin.
She does nothing in bed,
Tossing about her head.
The earliest poem about the lotus in China, “Zebei” (“A Bewitching Lady”) is a ballad that was produced during the State of Chen period. It was included in the Book of Songs (oldest collection of Chinese poetry) and is a masterpiece that has been known for thousands of years.
Modern scholars generally agree that “Zebei” describes a girl standing near a pool thinking about her lover. There are also some who believe that it is a song sung by a man out of sadness after failing to win the heart of his dream girl.
Qu Yuan (340–278 BC) was a patriotic poet who lived during the Warring States period (475–221 BC). He wrote a poem known as “Lisao” (“The Lament”), which contains the lines: “I'll make a coat with lotus leaves, and patch my skirt with lilies white.” Unlike other accessories, clothes are very important for daily life. Qu chose to depict a coat that is made only from lotuses. They symbolise nobleness and purity. He wanted to express his determination to stay away from undesirable trends and to not yield to evil forces.
Gathering lotuses was a tradition in the regions south of the Yangtze River. This practice was most popular during the Six Dynasties (AD 220–589). There is a Yuefu song that was created during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) known as Jiangnan (“South of the Yangtze River”) that depicts a bright and beautiful picture. The lotus is also frequently seen in poems that were written during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907). The flower is directly praised for its noble character and used to express human feelings and aspirations in those works. The great Tang poet Li Bai (AD 701–762) was very fond of the lotus also. Lines such as “like a lotus flower coming out of clear water, naturally pure and beautiful without any excessive decoration” praise the fresh writing style of his friend Prefect Wei and demonstrate his preference for simple and direct poetry and his dislike of a more ornate style.
Tang poet Wang Changling (AD 698–756) also wrote about the lotus in his poem “Cai Lianqu” (“Plucking Lotus”). It describes a beautiful scene of girls in the south enjoying their job of picking lotuses. “Xiari nanting huai Xin Da” (“Thinking of Xin Da at the South Pavilion on a Summer Day”) by poet Meng Haoran (AD 691–740) portrays a cool afternoon by a pond in the summer. Poet Li Shangyin (AD 813–858) wrote about how the flower and leaves of the lotus create its beauty in “Zeng hehua” (“For Lotus Flower”). In China, there is a saying that goes, “The lotus flower is set off by its green leaves.” This is similar to the idea that “Zeng hehua” expresses.
At a lotus pond in the autumn, one can enjoy neither the magnificence of “green lotus leaves spreading as far as boundless sky” nor the splendour of “pink lotus blossoms taking from sunshine a new dye.” Instead, the bleakness and quietness of autumn can be felt. Half of a pond is likely to be brown and withered. The line “lotus fragrance fading and green leaves withering” describes the scene. The withered lotus branches look like thin arms, and the stalks may stand weakly in the wind. Lotuses in autumn are like a group of dancers that are not as beautiful as they once were and are waiting quietly.
The lotus is an attractive subject. People can enjoy depictions of their delicate fragrance and refreshing breezes when reading poems about them. They can also learn about life's truths. Lines like “by poolside over there, grow reed and lotus bloom” take one back to ancient times when unusually beautiful and graceful lotuses were blooming brightly.