Lo­tuses in Chi­nese Lit­er­a­ture

Beijing (English) - - POEM - Trans­lated by Wu Li Edited by Justin Davis

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.

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