愛蓮說- On the Love of the Lotus

The previous post mentioned 周敦頤 Zhou Dunyi, who was perhaps one of the greatest Chinese philosophers, if slightly cheated of fame.

A little bit of background is perhaps necessary here. I think it’s quite common knowledge that Confucianism has been an important ideology (or religion, though it’s not much like religion to be honest) for the Chinese. The ‘Confucianism’ of more recent centuries, however, is really Neo-Confucianism, or what in Chinese is called 理學 li3 xue2 ‘study of principles’. This was a revamped creed that arose during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), one of China’s cultural golden ages.

The prominent pioneers of this philosophy include 朱熹 Zhu1 Xi1, and the two brothers 程頤 Cheng2 Yi2 and 程顥 Cheng2 Hao4, which is why Neo-Confucianism is also known as the Cheng-Zhu school or Cheng-Zhu orthodoxy. Both the Cheng brothers, however, spent their formative years as students of Zhou Dunyi, who borrowed extensively from Taoist precepts in teaching Confucian ideas, which is why Zhou is nowadays also credited as a pioneering thinker.

The following prose piece is a short essay, what would be called 散文 san3 wen2 or ‘scattered writing’, where Zhou talks about… yeah, liking lotuses. Incidentally, it is perhaps not a coincidence with him that Tao Yuanming is often seen as espousing the Taoist ideal of retreat from the world and of not-doing, while the lotus is of course a favourite flower of the Buddhists, another prominent Chinese (well, not originally) philosophy and religion.

Well, take it away!

水陸草木之花,可愛者甚蕃。晉陶淵明獨愛菊;自李唐來,世人皆愛牡丹;

Of the flowers and shrubs on land and water, many are worthy of admiration. Tao Yuanming of the Jin Dynasty was very fond of the chrysanthemum. Ever since the Tang Dynasty [1], people have been very much into peonies [2].

予獨愛蓮之出淤泥而不染,濯清漣而不妖,中通外直,不蔓不枝,

As for me, I am fond of the lotus, rising from silt but unsullied, washed in clear water but not vain, hollow within [3] and straight without, neither clambering nor sprouting branches [4].

香遠益清,亭亭凈植,可遠觀而不可褻玩焉。

Its fragrance spreads far and strong, yet it stands still and firm, and people may admire it from afar but not go close and taint it.

予謂菊,花之隱逸者也;牡丹,花之富貴者也;蓮,花之君子者也。

I think the chrysanthemum is the recluse of flowers; the peony is the flower most awash in fortune; but the lotus is most like the gentleman.

噫!菊之愛,陶后鮮有聞;蓮之愛,同予者何人?牡丹之愛,宜乎眾矣!

Ah! Chrysanthemums have been out of fashion since Tao. As for the lotus lovers, how many are there besides me? As for peonies, they are perennially popular!

[1] Here the text says Li-Tang; Li refers to the imperial house of the Tang Dynasty. This convention is necessary because, by Zhou Dunyi’s time, there were three dynasties called Tang. Actually that sounds like a great thing to talk about later.

[2] Peonies have been known as the ‘king of flowers’ historically; one of the most famous places for its cultivation of peonies is Luoyang, itself an ancient imperial city.

[3] ‘Hollow within’ doesn’t quite mean what it means these days; it means to be humble, not ‘full of oneself’. Incidentally, being hollow within and yet straight without is also the reason why the bamboo plant is often considered the ‘gentleman of the plants’.

[4] Clambering is quite clear, perhaps, and sprouting branches means to be stirring things up all the time – to create drama for personal aims, as it were. A good trait for a gentleman not to possess.

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2 thoughts on “愛蓮說- On the Love of the Lotus

  1. I found your blog via Google Search. One of my cousins quoted from this work (albeit in Korean), while commenting on lotus flowers, and I was a bit confused why he said such a thing until now.

    PS I also run a blog on translation of Classical Chinese texts, written by Korean authors.

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