Three days after Dahan (大寒, usually the coldest period of the year) when the weather was still erratic and temperatures were fluctuating, I went to my friend’s house to admire plum blossoms in full bloom.
I got a whiff of its unique fragrance in the crisp air even before it came into view; its scent was mild and delicate, neither overpowering nor sweet and cloying. The plum blossom is proud and aloof, yet humble, quiet and full of character. Indeed it sets itself apart from other fragrant flowers. Incidentally, humans can detect at least 10,000 scents; joy and sorrow, agonies and epiphanies, as well as letting go and holding on — they all resemble emotionally-charged scents.
At that moment, he realised: a scent permeates the depths of physical existence.
His country in ruins and his family destroyed, Yuan dynasty painter Wang Mian (courtesy name Yuanzhang) journeyed alone into the mountains, as if tracking a scent. He eventually arrived at a secluded spot at the ends of the earth. There, he encountered the plum blossom tree in bloom. Hints of its enchanting fragrance reached him in the wind; sometimes near, and at other times, far away. At that moment, he realised: a scent permeates the depths of physical existence.
Perhaps it was from bearing the weight of generations of fateful encounters. Yuanzhang could feel the scent of a solitary cosmos that had left the material world and human emotions behind; he took in the powerful scent full of character and vigour, far from his homeland. Yes, he took this all in, but this painter of an ill-fated country merely picked up his brush, serenely painting Plum Blossoms in Early Spring (《南枝春早》).
“Like water in spirit and jade in soul (水作精神玉作魂)”. - Chiang Hsun
The painting was accidentally lost following wars and chaos but finally found its home on this island of Taiwan. Some saw it, others did not. It didn’t matter where it ended up. Even if the painter knew, he would perhaps only have given a barely noticeable smile — only he knew where the real plum flowers bloomed.
I once wrote a line about plum blossoms: “Like water in spirit and jade in soul (水作精神玉作魂)”. Today, I am looking at this flower again. It is indeed like water and jade, and continues to exude the spirit and soul of the ones in Yuanzhang’s painting. I want to stand for sometime before each flower, and quietly contemplate my past life.
In the words of Yuanzhang, “It does not need praises of its beauty. It only wishes to leave its fragrance in the heavens and the earth.”
Yuanzhang, may you be safe and well. I remained silent. I clasped my hands in prayer.
Related: Wintersweet scents in Jiangnan | As pure as the driven snow, in a virtual and surreal world | What I Ching and the mangrove tree flowers tell us about life | A return to the physical body and the exuberance of the Tang dynasty