( Mèng): Origin of a Dream
The Chinese character ‘梦'( mèng) has a long and rich history. As early as the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC–1046 BC) the character was inscribed on turtle shells and animal bones used for divination.
The Origin of ‘Meng’
“梦”( mèng) is an associative character. In ancient oracle bone inscriptions, the right part of the “梦” looks like a standing bed, while the left part resembles a man lying asleep on the bed with his hands on his head; the pose is associated with dreaming. By the Warring States Period (475–221 BC), the character had been simplified and combined with another character, “夕” ( xī, “night”), becoming “夢.” This addition lent emphasis to the idea that dreams occur at night.
“夢”( mèng), the traditional Chinese character for the word “dream,” is made up of four parts. The two upper parts, “艹” and “罒,” together resemble the shape of an eyebrow. The middle part, “冖,” is interpreted as the roof of a house, and the lower part consists of the aformentioned “夕” (xī). After the simplification of the Chinese characters, “夢” became today's easy-to-write character “梦.”
From the beginning of recorded history, the Chinese studied dreams. The philosopher Mozi (470–391 BC) held that dreams were illusions that emerged during sleep. Similar views were shared by the philosopher Wang Chong (AD 27–97) and the scholar Zhang Zilie (1597–1673).
The Book of Songs records an ode celebrating the completion of a palace for a noble of the Zhou Dynasty (11th century–256 BC). In the ode, the noble wakes up from a deep sleep and has his dream divined.
Lu You (1125–1209) was a Southern Song Dynasty poet who found himself in seclusion in his hometown, Shaoxing, after resigning from his official position. However, he was eager to serve the motherland by fighting against the invading Jin Dynasty troops. The Southern Song court, however, adopted a passive attitude toward the Jin Dynasty invaders and seemed indifferent to reconquering its lost northern territories. Lu You's aspiration could not be realised. At the age of 68 he wrote a poem, “Written in a Storm”: “Abed, motionless, in a lonely village, / For myself I sorrow not. /All I seek's defence of my country's frontier, / And to me a station there allot. / Lying in the depth of the night I listen / To the winds blowing the rain, /And iron-clad horses o'er frozen rivers, /As of old, invade my dreams again.” The poem shines with Lu You's patriotism, as he aspires to serve the country even in his dreams.
The Ming Dynasty writer Li Kaixian (1502–1568) once penned a poem entitled “Yuyi” (literally, “implied meaning”) in which he wrote that he dreamed a friend sent him a pot of good wine. He asked his servant to warm the wine, but the sudden crowing of a rooster woke him up. Still, he could smell the aroma of the wine as he rose. Like most people, the poet felt a surge of regret as his pleasant dream was abruptly interrupted.
To recall a happy experience from the past is called “reliving an old dream” (“重温旧梦,” chóngwēn jiùmèng) “Seeking the Dream” of The Peony Pavilion, written by the Ming Dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu (1550–1616), includes the line, “Oh, heaven, the lake and the pavilion in yesterday's dream were real enough. I tried to relive the old dream but new disappointment ensued.”
Stories about ‘ Meng’
Xunzi, a philosophical book written by the Confucian philosopher Xunzi, or Xun Kuang (314–217 BC), notes that one should not be disturbed by illusion or annoyance in a dream.
Huainanzi, an important Chinese classic written in the second century BC under the patronage of the nobleman Liu An, prince of Huainan, records a similar idea: “A person will not be in trouble if he acts according to the rules of justice and morality, although he might have nightmares. Although a state might experience some ominous phenomena, it cannot outdo benevolent policies.”
The Song Dynasty writer Su Shi (1037–1101) once wrote a poem entitled “Seeking Spring” in which he introduces the famous lines: “Old friends still ask autumn swans to bring word to me; / The bygones like spring dreams have left no traces here.” Nowadays the phrase “spring dreams” (“春梦,” chūnmèng) refers to things that disappear as easily as a dream on a spring night, leaving no trace but a memory.
The poet of the late Tang Dynasty Du Mu (AD 803–852) once served
as secretary to Niu Sengru, military governor of Huainan in Yangzhou. While in Yangzhou, Du Mu led a hedonistic life in which he befriended several well-known prostitutes. Ten years later, Du Mu wrote a well-known poem, “Venting My Feelings,” recalling his time in Yangzhou. “An outcast amid rivers and lakes, with my ale, / The waists of the Southern girls are so light and frail. / All the ten years in Yangzhou is but a dream, alas, / I've won fame as a fickle lover in the brothel tale.”
In the poem, Du Mu lamented that time went by so quickly while his talent remained unrecognised. The line “All the ten years in Yangzhou is but a dream” has produced endless interpretations.
Collected Stories from the Tang ( Tangzhiyan) is a collection of short stories from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618– 907) written by the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms scholar Wang Dingbao (AD 870–940). The volume includes a wealth of quotations from over 100 poets and scholars, including the well-known line, “Even though I cannot travel easily because of mountains and rivers, I always nurture my dream that I can make it.”
Nowadays, people use the term “daydreaming” to describe everyday fantasies. This usage appears in Select Collection of Elegant Jokes (Jingxuan yaxiao), compiled by the Ming Dynasty writer Zui Yuezi.
When someone suddenly realises the truth, it is often said they have woken up from a dream. The Ming Dynasty novelist Feng Menglong wrote in Annals of The Kingdoms in The East Zhou Dynasty, “King Li of the Zhou said with great pleasure, ‘I'm like waking up from a dream after hearing what you said.'”
In The Analects, Confucius laments, “How utterly have things gone to the bad with me! It is long now indeed since I dreamed that I saw the Duke of Zhou.”
According to The Records of the Grand Historian, King Wu Ding (reign: 1324–1266 BC) of the Shang Dynasty (16th century–11th century BC) had a dream in which he saw a sage by the name of Fu Yue. Although all his ministers said it was only a dream, Wu Ding sent out officials to search for
Fu Yue; they finally found him living humbly in a cave. Wu Ding recognised Fu Yue from his dream and appointed him counsellor. With the help of Fu Yue, Wu Ding's reign became the high point of the Shang Dynasty.
Nowadays when a person makes great strides in their writing, people say, “Dreaming of flowers sprouting from a writing brush” (“梦笔生花,” mèngbǐ shēnghuā). The allusion comes from The History of the Southern Dynasties, in which it was said that Ji Shaoyu studied so hard that the God of Literature was moved. One night, Ji Shaoyu dreamed that a famous writer gave him a carved green jade brush, saying, “I consider this eminently useful. You should choose the finest thoughts to express with it.” Inspired, Ji made great strides in his literary writings and became a famous scholar.
Anecdotes of the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, compiled by Wang Renyu during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, records that when the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (AD 701–762) was young, he dreamed of flowers sprouting from his brush; consequently, his fame spread throughout the world.
The Tang Dynasty's Zhang Jiuling (AD 678–740), a prominent minister, noted poet and scholar, was promoted to serve as chancellor during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (reign: AD 713– 756) in AD 733. However, Zhang was constantly defamed by Li Linfu, one of the emperor's favourite ministers. Three years later, Zhang was demoted to the post of secretary general at Jing Prefecture (present- day Jingzhou, Hubei). One night after his demotion, Zhang wrote a poem entitled “Viewing the Moon, Thinking of You.” “As the bright moon shines over the sea, / From far away you share this moment with me. / For parted lovers lonely nights are the worst to be. / All night long I think of no one but thee. / To enjoy the moon I blow out the candle stick. / Please put on your nightgown for the dew is thick. / I try to offer you the moonlight so hard to pick, / Hoping a reunion in my
dream will come quick.”
“Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream” is a famous Taoist allegory in the Zhuangzi, one of the two foundational texts of Daoism. Once, Zhuang Zhou, a philosopher who lived around the fourth century BC during the Warring States period, dreamed he was a butterfly— flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He did not know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up, and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. As he reflected on the dream, the philosopher could not tell whether he was Zhuang Zhou dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou.
The Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai once wrote a poem entitled “Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream”: “Zhuangzi dreamed of being a butterfly / Or perhaps the butterfly dreamed of being Zhuangzi.” Late-tang Dynasty poet Li Shangyin (AD 813–858) also wrote the recognisable lines, “Dim morning dream to be a butterfly; / Amorous heart poured out in cuckoo's cry.”
The Tang Dynasty poet Meng Haoran (AD 689–740) travelled to Chang'an in AD 733. There, Meng befriended Zhang Jiuling, who was serving as deputy head of the Palace Library and scholar at Jixian Institute at the time. Later, when Zhang was appointed chancellor at the imperial court, Meng wrote him a poem hoping his newly powerful friend would recognise his talent. The poem, “To Prime Minister Zhang from the Bank of Dongting Lake,” includes two wellknown lines: “While vapours all over Cloud-dream Marsh up roll, / Bores roar ahead to rock Yueyang City wall.” “CloudDream Marsh” (“云梦泽,” yúnmèng zé) referred to marshy areas within presentday Hubei and Hunan provinces.
The poet Qu Yuan (340–278 BC) once wrote “Requiem,” which includes the lines, “I go with the king to CloudDream Marsh, / And we have a race all the way through.”
The Northern Song Dynasty scientist Shen Kuo (1031–1095) wrote in his Brush Talks from Dream Brook, “During Yuanfeng period of the reign of Emperor Shenzong, I started from Suizhou and went through Anlu before arriving at the converging place of the Hanshui River and the Yangtze River, where I met Guo Si, chief administrative officer in Jingling. Guo was familiar with the geography around the Hanshui River and the Mianshui River. In his eyes, the river-bound mèng (dream) is in the south of the Yangtze River, while the river-bound yún (cloud) is in the north. I verified Guo's view by studying Zuozhuan, and found that he is right.”
“Mèng” also means “drizzle.” The Jin Dynasty scholar Wang Ruoxu (1174– 1243) wrote in his Talks on Poetry, “The rain is as fine as if there were nothing, which is called ‘ mèng' (drizzle).”
“Mèng” can also refer to “keeping somebody in the dark.” In Chapter 32 of Journey to the West, the Duty God of the Day transformed himself into a woodcutter and warned Sangzang and his disciples. “Stop here for a moment on your journey west,” he shouted.
“I must warn you that there is a pack of vicious ogres and fierce wolves on this mountain. They eat travellers from the east who are heading west.” After dismissing the Duty God, Monkey was feeling worried as he landed his cloud and went up the mountainside. He found his comrades Sanzang, Pig and Friar Sand pressing ahead. “If I tell the master (Sangzang) straight what the Duty God said,” he thought, “the master won't be able to face up to it and will start crying. But if I don't tell him and keep him in the dark, he won't know how things stand, and it'll be a great nuisance for me if he gets captured by monsters...”
“Meng” is also a surname which originated in ancient China. It is said that people with the surname Meng are descendants of Shou Meng, prince of Wu during the Warring States Period. Shou Meng was originally surnamed Ji, which is also the surname of king of the Zhou Dynasty. He ascended to the throne in 586 BC and made great efforts to develop Wu's economy and strengthen its military power.
Wanxing tongpu, a book on Chinese surnames compiled by Ling Dizhi (1529– 1600), lists some of the outstanding historical figures surnamed Meng.
With its ancient origins, mythical legacy and poetic legends, the character “mèng” now tells stories of the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.