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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mid Autumn Parting - 中秋辭別


Thursday, September 15, 2011, 2am – 5:30am

Mid Autumn Parting – 中秋辭別

Mid Autumn Festival was only three days ago. There we were on that night when the moon was brightest, seven long time friends ate dessert after a splendid dinner. One was parting way with the gang - back to Hong Kong he must return. His long road in getting the US green card had been cut short. His work visa was rejected by Immigration. We were sad but could do nothing; only to enjoy this idle night of these seven musketeers being together. Bottles of good wine were opened but only Coke for me. Not a sip do I partake in life. This is good since driving under influence is illegal in here. Hence I am always the designated driver for my drinking buddies. To lighten the mood, our host suggested that we should imitate the past with a poetry composition while having a drinking bout. Indeed a very appropriate for the occasion. Since I am sober and the weakest in Chinese, I was given the honour to set the theme. They claimed better thinking when drunk! A scholar I am not and so I decided on the rules – common theme and an opening line. Since there were only seven of us, it would be cumbersome to come up with a different line one after another (Classical Chinese poetry demands a stanza of four lines). In the end, I suggested “明月照池塘” - Brightly the moon shines over the pond. On hindsight, it would be better to have a seven character format instead of five to represent each one of us.

My friends laughed at my humour and imagination. You see, there was no pond anywhere in sight but a modern swimming pool! I retorted that in their drunken stupor they can transform the pool into a pond and the heavy smell of chlorine into lotus fragrance! With this, an idea stepped into my mind. After a few more drinks were exchanged I began,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
蓮香八里長. Lotus fragrance wafting eight miles long.
酒盡人未醉, Gone is the wine but sober still we are,
離別太匆匆! Alas, too hurriedly we part!

My host gave out a hearty laugh, complaining that it was always easy for the starter! A few more glasses later, he began reciting,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
花影踏漣渏. Flower shadows tiptoeing over ripples.
只知今夜醉, Getting drunk tonight is what we know,
不曉明日離. Nary a care for tomorrow’s parting!

Once more, I was outshone by his superiority in the Chinese language and wonderful rhyming tones in Cantonese. Not too long, another chimed in with his more upbeat version,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
螢火點花心, Fireflies lighting up flowers like little bulbs.
今宵吐別情, Tonight we exchange goodbyes,
明朝談重逢! Tomorrow we’ll talk of reunion!

“花心" flower heart can also mean the heart of the fire burning in a candle etc. This is because of wicks bursting out like a flower caused by the flame and heat. I never cease to be amazed by the literary cleverness of my friends. Not to be outshone, another already had one on his lips,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
荷葉接水天, Lotus leaves receiving the watery sky.
交杯說真言, Exchanging our cups we speak of truths,
不知何日回. Not knowing when you will return.

I was enjoying the literary exchange immensely. Though our poetry talents were not of great caliber, still it was great delight to us all in this mid autumn night of revelry. I felt lucky to friends to be these drinking buddies even though I am the sober one. Soon another chimed in his version,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
沉魚別天顏, The fish descending to bid Heaven adieu,
歌舞酒未滿. Song and dance, our cups not yet full,
恍然夢一談. Suddenly our conversation is like a dream.

How appropriate the sentiments were expressed. I have much to learn from my friends in their rapidity in coming up with such vivid imagery and rhyming lines. After another short lull as glasses clinked and praises floated around, uttered next were the lines,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
落葉點天庭. Falling leaves touching the celestial courtyard.
宴席須會散, All banquets must come to an end,
友誼永不殘! Friendship will never wither!

Finally we all looked at our soon to be departing friend. As if for a dramatic pause, he lifted up his glass, had a sip and looked at us mournfully for awhile. We saw genuine sullenness on his face. Given the circumstances, there was nothing out of the ordinary. To lighten his mood, we jabbed at him for some ribaldry as his Chinese is by far better than the rest of us combined. He was a fine arts major, able to write a mean hand of Chinese calligraphy and of course a talented artist in Chinese traditional painting; skilled in western oils and an appraiser of art. However, his skills were deemed not crucial by Immigration like certified public tax accountants, lawyers, researchers or software engineers. Finally after much hewing and hawing, he finally came up with this,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
微風送梅香. Plum blossoms perfuming the breeze.
瓊酒金杯合, Exquisite wine matches the golden goblets,
裙飛玉環響! Skirts in dance, tintinnabulation go the jade bracelets!

We all ribbed at him as his poem did not match the theme of the occasion. It is still now mid autumn and not winter yet (plum blossoms signify winter). Why didn’t he use the word ” 花" (flower) or even "秋" (autumn) instead? It would be better in rhyming and be in the correct season too. We chided that he was too drunk to be in charge of his faculties. Not only this, they were no dancing girls around and neither was there any golden goblet to drink from! For these flaws, he was ordered to drink more wine!

I have to work the next day, this party of seven ended too soon for my taste. As I drove the drunken revelers home, my friend was quiet; staring out into the sky as if in contemplation. A thousand words hung in his heart but none uttered. I dismissed his pensive mood for having to leave Los Angeles soon; his home of ten years. However my mind gave me no rest. I sensed something was not quite right and yet I could not put a finger on it.

Tonight as I was sleeping, I had a sudden realization. I got up; wrote his poem on paper and there was the clue winking at me. Crouched in the poem were hidden allusions that were not apparent at the first glance. It was from his last line! So obvious on paper!

“Yu Huan” (“玉環”, jade bracelet) was also the name for Yang Gui Fei of the T’ang Dynasty. For those who are not familiar with Chinese history, she was the beautiful imperial concubine that brought down the Dynasty with her petticoat! For more information, google her name.

With this key, I was able to unlock the poem quickly. Despite being prided myself as the witty one of the group, what an idiot I was not to detect such a gem that he had craftily hidden! “明月照池塘“ (Brightly the moon shines over the pond), translated character by character is “bright/illustrious moon shines pond pool”. The T’ang Emperor, Hsuan Tsung was also known as the Illustrious Emperor (明皇). Before being brought into the imperial harem, Lady Yang, his daughter-in-law was made a nun for proprietary reasons. Her Buddhist title was “Grand Reality” (太真), a euphemism for the moon. Thus the first line may be interpreted as “Emperor Ming and Yang Gui Fei were at their peak of their power shining all over the empire”. How intriguing!

For history buffs, the clue in the next line, “微風送梅香”(Gentle breeze send/receive plum-blossom fragrance) is now clear to me. The Emperor’s earlier favourite was the slender “梅妃, Mei Fei” (Plum Blossom Concubine, so entitled by the Emperor for her love of plum blossoms). The character “送” has two meanings, “send away respectfully” (送去) or “presented” (送來). When the Emperor found his new toy, the displaced concubine was sent to the “Cold Palace” (冷宮) from the eyes of the new lovers. Hence I can infer that the gentle breeze meant some low ranking eunuch.

In the third line, I am projecting into some ribaldry. The rigid golden goblet stood for the Emperor while the wine represented his new delight. My reasoning is that “合“(match, combine) is short for “合歡” or “pleasure in union”. So I guessed my friend’s mastery in ribaldry had escaped us that night. Pity! We all could have a good laugh.

Finally for the last line, “skirt flying jade bracelet ring (make a sound)”, instead of more ribaldry, I opted for a tamer version of Yang Gui Fei dancing to the tune of the “Feathered Rainbow Skirt” (霓裳羽衣曲).

We had underestimated the genius of our friend! He was trying to tell us that his relationship with his girl friend had ended. No wonder he insisted on spending the festive night with us instead. In the end, his poem was of parting too, though not of the same kind; losing his love not of his own doing.

This is the modern swimming pool I was talking about.

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