A gentle breeze caressed my face as I strolled along West Lake. It was getting chilly. Fruits of the golden rain tree, small and round, were scattered across the ground. They were green but covered in brown spots — had they become ripe? Or had they grown weary and fell to the ground in despair? Whatever it was, they marked the change in seasons from the brilliant and exhilarating summer to the barren and sullen autumn. This is the law of nature, but it still makes one melancholic. It’s no wonder the emotions of ancient people were often stirred by the changing of the seasons — each change signifies the passage of time, and the realisation that life is slipping through their fingers. One day has gone by, two days have passed. We feel that life doesn’t change much, but each passing moment is a poignant reminder of a ticking clock.
Ancient texts paint a picture of the heart-wrenching pain that comes with the merciless passage of time. The Nine Changes section of The Songs of Chu (《楚辞·九辩》, written in the Pre-Qin Period) talks about “barren trees, fallen leaves, bleak emptiness”, while it is recorded in Lu Ji’s The Poetic Exposition on Literature (《文赋》, written in the Western Jin Dynasty) that “the soul is stirred watching the leaves fall”. And Du Fu’s Eight Poems to Autumn (《秋兴八首》, written in the Tang Dynasty) speaks of “vast fallen leaves, boundless bare trees” and the way “autumn’s frost tramples maple trees”.
Only Liu Yuxi and Su Shi’s poems turn away from bleakness, painting scenes of a refreshing autumn instead. For instance, Liu Yuxi’s Songs of Autumn (《秋词》, written in the Tang Dynasty) proclaims, “Autumn long hails words of sorrow. Yet, to me, autumn is better than spring. A crane soars through the clouds in the clear blue sky, chiming in harmony with me as I write of its magnificence.” Su Shi’s To Liu Jingwen (《赠刘景文》, written in the Song Dynasty) reads, “Though the lotuses and chrysanthemums have wilted, their stems stand strong in the frost. Remember dear friend, the best views of the year are when oranges turn golden and green.”
I sometimes think about the way the ancient literati led pampered lives and often idled their time away. They either lived lavish lives and didn’t have much to do (like Song Yu), or lived in poverty but still didn’t have much to do (like Du Fu). They were only worried about defamation or the effects that palace power struggles would have on their personal interests. They were thus easily affected by their surroundings: as the autumn wind blew, the leaves turned yellow, and the last autumn leaf fell, they felt like they were nearing the end of their lives. Only the ones who had been through hardship and miraculously survived the cruelty of life — like Liu Yuxi and Su Shi — could reflect on how far they had come, how true they had stayed to their beliefs regardless of their circumstances, and how they had lived a righteous life with their heads held high. Undoubtedly, living unapologetically in one’s golden years is deserving of applause — it is no wonder that they felt a breath of fresh air having endured the toughest of times and were soaring through the skies even in a solemn autumn.
In the poem Ding Feng Bo, Su Shi writes about a thundering storm they encountered while on a trip. Those in his company were feeling beaten by it, but he maintained his calm throughout the ordeal. Eventually, the skies cleared and everyone was refreshed again. I wonder what it took for Su Shi to keep his inner peace regardless of rain or shine? And what’s more, he accomplished this without reaching the state of enlightenment like the Buddhists, who could see beyond life and death. This man who lived a thousand years ago was far ahead of everyone, and already singing “I’m singing in the rain, just singing in the rain”!
I was simply strolling along West Lake. Why did I ponder hard and long about the inner thoughts of these ancient people? Perhaps it was because of the scenery before my eyes — the vast greenery of the Su Causeway, crisp from a thundery shower the night before — reminded me of the time Su Shi held office as prefectural governor of Hangzhou. He dredged the West Lake and erected six bridges. Although “Dawn on the Su Causeway in Spring” is one of the top ten tourist spots of West Lake, the narrow strip of land draped with weeping willow trees is still breathtaking in autumn. The Baochu Pagoda (保俶塔) atop the Precious Stone Hill (宝石山) is visible in the distance, overlooking all of humanity. From its perch, it has witnessed events over the years from Bai Niangzi and Xu Xian (fictional characters in The Legend of the White Snake) falling in love through a borrowed umbrella, to the time that the Leifeng Pagoda (雷峰塔) collapsed in 1924. I walked past a fenced-up lotus pond and observed that a few lotus petals had begun to wither. Withered stalks broke and fell onto the pond, reflecting light and forming irregular patterns. It was as if a work of abstract art with nature’s signature was solidifying the sands of time. Many people whipped out their mammoth cameras, and bent their bodies at different angles to capture the beauty of the lotus pond. I suddenly had a wild idea: what if current technological advancements could transform these photos of lotuses, break down and rewrite their DNA? One could then transport the reorganised DNA strands and propagate a pond of blooming lotuses elsewhere?
Who knows? Some scientists are even dissatisfied that they’ve only made it to the Moon. They’re now on a mission to land on Mars, all so that humanity can live there when Earth has been destroyed to the point of uninhabitability. May I suggest that these scientists work even harder to grow the West Lake lotuses there as well? To have on Mars’ barren land, lotuses that grow from the mud but remain unstained, that are honourably cleansed by the waters but remain modest, that have hollow stems but stand upright, that have a refreshing scent that draws people in — that would be such a beautiful sight to behold!