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Moonlight in the Lotus Pond (荷塘月色)

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A poet and prolific essay writer, Zhu Ziqing (1898-1948) was an important figure in the May Fourth movement of the 1920s.

I was drawn to Zhu Ziqing's "Moonlight in the Lotus Pond" by his clear,
beautiful imagery and his combination of classical allusion and personal
reflection. It's interesting to read a twentieth-century writer who views
himself as both a small player and an active participant in nature's

—Peter Richardson

A version of this piece was originally published at The Peking Glass.

For the last few days I have been feeling quite unsettled, but when I sat taking the air in the courtyard this evening, my thoughts suddenly turned to the lotus pond that I go past every day. It must look quite different in the light of the full moon. And so, with the moon gradually rising and the sound of children’s laughter in the street fading beyond the wall, I left my wife in the house stroking Ruan and crooning folk tunes in a daze, quietly draped my jacket over my shoulders, and went out by the gate.

A small, winding cinder road fringed the lotus pond. The path was quiet and remote; very few people walked along it in daylight, and at night it was even more lonely. On each side of the lotus pond grew diverse trees that sprouted in forms luxuriant and dense. By the side of the road were willow trees, and other trees, the names of which I didn't know. In a night with no moonlight the road was wrapped in gloom, and frightening. But tonight was pleasant, although the moon shone only faintly.

I was the only person on the road. Strolling along with my hands behind my back, I thought that this slice of heaven and earth must belong to me alone; I felt as if I had transcended my ordinary self, and had passed into another world entirely. I love the bustle, but I also crave the calm; I love to live in a crowd, but I also delight in solitude. Everyone is at liberty to think about anything or nothing beneath the vastness of the moon, much as I have been able to tonight. Each man may discover his freedom. In this place, we may disregard all that we are compelled to do and say by daylight. This is the merit of solitude, and this is why I made full use of the boundless moonlight and the pervasive aroma of the lotus.

Above the lapping and curling lotus pond one saw nothing but a tessellation of leaves. They had cleared the surface of the water and had risen high; they looked like the skirts of a graceful dancing girl. White flowers were stitched sporadically onto the layered leaves; some had flowered with grace, while others split open as if bashful. They seemed like small, round pearls, stars in a jade sky, or perhaps a woman fresh from her bathing. A breeze picked up, carrying threads of a sweet scent like the faint strains of a song from a distant tower. Now the leaves and flowers shivered like lightning, and in an instant they were on the surface of the pond. They had grown up dense and shoulder-to-shoulder; now the wind carried a ripple of darkest jade. Beneath the leaves ran silent water; it was concealed, and I could not make out its colour, but the leaves were all the more enchanting for it.

The moonlight was like running water; it surged calmly onto the bed of flowers. A pale mist rose, and floated throughout the pond. The blossoms and leaves stood as if washed in milk, like a dream covered in fine muslin. Though the moon was full, there was still a layer of weak cloud in the sky that muted its brightness. But this was nothing to complain about: we can’t do without deep sleep, after all, but a nap has charms of its own. The moonlight broke free from the cover of trees and beamed down; the bushes and shrubs that were overgrown in the high places released mottled, uneven shadows; the steep edges were like ghosts; and the beguiling image created by the sparse and crooked willows seemed to be painted onto the lotus leaves. The moonlight in the lotus pool was uneven, but the light and shadow were balanced in rhythm and harmony, like the sound of a violin.

There were trees ranked on all sides of the lotus pond, near and far, high and low; most of them were willows. These trees encircled the pond. Only alongside the lane were there several cracks, which seemed to have been created to allow the light to peer through. The trees were dark, and appeared at first glance like a cloud of smoke; the charm of the willows, however, could still be clearly distinguished. Barely discernible through the treetops was a ring of mountains, of which I was only able to form a faint impression. Through the fissures in the trees streamed one or two points of listless light from streetlamps, like the eyes of a man who yearns for sleep. At that moment, the most raucous sound that I could hear was the rasping of frogs in the water and the snapping of cicadas in the foliage.

But the bustle was theirs, and I felt none of it. Suddenly, I began to think of plucking a lotus. Picking a lotus seems to have been a custom of Jiangnan since a very long time ago. By the Six Dynasties it had become popular, or so the poems of the period suggest. Those who plucked lotuses were maidens who sang love songs from their small boats. Of course, in reality there were many who picked lotuses, and there were those who watched them do it. That was an exhilarating season of life, and a romantic one; the fu poem ‘Picking the Lotus’ by Emperor Yuan of Liang says it well:

“The marvellous youth and the beautiful maiden drew out a boat together to pick a lotus; they cast forth again and again, pitching round the wine. Now the oars sway, and the plants are brushed aside; at the slightest movement of the boat, the duckweed folds ahead. The beautiful maiden's figure is slender and graceful; their resolution wavers. In this moment when spring ends and summer begins, the leaves are tender and the flowers are beginning to bud. Their clothes are splashed, they smile; she holds up her silken skirt, afraid the boat will overturn.”

Such was the sight of the frolics and amusements back then. Truly fascinating; what a pity that in our own time we are unable to enjoy it!

I also recalled a line from ‘The Song of Xizhou’:

“When we plucked the lotus, it was autumn in the southern pond, and the lotus flowers reached higher than a man's head; the lotus seed, when one bowed to collect it, was as pure as water.”

The lotus flowers here, too, towered higher than a man's head, were there anyone here to pick them. The only thing missing was a moving current. This made me think of Jiangnan. As I was entertaining such thoughts, I suddenly looked up, and realized that I had arrived back at my door without having noticed. I softly pried open the gate and slipped in, without making a sound; my wife had long fallen asleep.

July 1927, Qinghua Park

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