Wintry words of wisdom from trio of Chinese dynasties
Winter solstice came and went on Dec 21－the shortest day of the year－without a sign of snow in Beijing. The Chinese capital has yet to see its streets and shrubs shrouded in white. This is certainly good news for jogging addicts and purse snatchers alike as the former can get their runners' highs on slip-proof streets while the latter can spirit themselves away with their purloined purses without leaving footprints.
But for those of us who aren't career runners or cons－I am guessing the vast majority of the readership－a white carpet in the capital would be the perfect distraction to a rather dismal year gone by.
In the absence of the white stuff, and I don't mean China's national potent potable baijiu (white spirit), here are three old cold-season poems from centuries and even millennia of old to put us in the spirit of the season.
The first is Midnight Song of the Seasons, author unknown, from the Southern Dynasty (420-589):
"If you wish to make a good friend,
Just look at the pine and cypress woods.
Amid the frost, they do not fall to earth,
Without disloyalty when the year is cold."
What better a sentiment to express the isolation that many of us have felt this winter?
Although 4G social media platforms were somewhat limited in 5th century China, we can still feel the poet's longing to get out and share a hot drink with a confidante.
I like the unknown author's comparing bonhomie and steadfast friendship to the evergreen nature of pines and cypress trees that so tenaciously cling to their needles－which are in fact modified leaves that never leave－all year round, regardless of how low the mercury falls.
Next is Night Snow by Bai Juyi, Tang Dynasty (618-907):
"Startled at the cold stiffness of my pillow,
I see that the window is a sheet of pure white.
Deep in the night, the weight of snow increases, until I hear bamboo snapping in the darkness."
Since we know the poet here, an introduction may prove even more heuristic.
Bai was one of the best known poets of perhaps the best know poetic age－the Tang Dynasty. His works are very personal, often reading like journal snippets that bring everyday experiences to life and elevate them with sublime artistic details. He managed to put out a copious body of work all while serving as a governor of three different provinces.
As for the poem itself, I was drawn in by the subtlety with which seasons change, often taking us unawares in the middle of the night as we have visions of sugarplums in our sleep only to awake to find our driveways need shoveling.
Finally, and much temporally closer to home, a mere millennia ago, comes Visiting the Temple of Auspicious Fortune Alone on Winter Solstice, by Su Shi, Song Dynasty (960-1279).
"Deep at the bottom of the well no warmth has yet returned,
The rain which sighs and feels so cold has dampened withered roots.
What sort of man at such a time would come to visit the teacher?
As this is not a time for flowers, I find I've come alone."
First, a bit of history. The Song, like the Tang, was one of the golden ages of Chinese classical poetry. Su divided his time between being a poet, politician, calligrapher, painter and philosopher, becoming one of the most sought-after scholars of his day.
Song officials were chosen based not on family ties or fortunes, but instead on the results of their national examinations, thus solidifying the era as one of pure meritocracy.
This allowed capable government officials to be free to pursue their artistic pursuits in their free time without fear of being usurped by a well-heeled upstart, and made the dynasty one of the country's most culturally prolific.
As for Su's poem, the image of a dutiful and studious scholar trekking through the winter chill to consult a teacher speaks volumes about the importance of self-study, academic improvement and high test scores at the time.