Saturday, 7 November 2015

Chinese Culture [7]: Alyssa's Romantic Takeout Flowers

Chinese Culture Appreciation is a blog series that aims at explaining tidbits of, well, the Chinese culture. As a girl from Hong Kong, I really hope to share more of my amazing, historically rich world with you.

I know what you're thinking. Alyssa, talking about romance? Did someone hijack the blog? And you'd be right. My sense of sarcasm has arrived.
You see, while flowers are a romantic gesture, in our traditional culture they are so much more. Each flower is a unique and understood symbol for different themes in our literature. Some flowers are half-insults, others are praise.

(You don't actually have to adhere to this guide in modern China. However, it will elevate the person's impression of you, especially if the person is a nerd.)

1. Lotus

The hermit of flowers, the sunflower is; the rich man of flowers, the peony is; and so, the lotus must be the gentleman of flowers. — Ai Lian Shuo, because the title was too pretty to translate.
Because the lotus is found in muddied pools, and yet grows straight and true, it's often considered to be a symbol of chivalry and integrity. Which were totally important in Chinese culture, mainly because Confucius couldn't shut up about it.

Anyhow, there are a few similar tree symbols, also the kind that tends to grow really straight (and brittle, but don't mention that): bamboo, pine trees, so on. I think their evergreen nature also plays into it, but ancient Chinese texts are more philosophical than factual.

Alyssa's Romantic Takeout Advice: Do not give unless you wish to accuse the other person of being oblivious to reality. Besides, any sane person will notice the mud dripping off the stem.


2. Plum blossoms

Blossoms in the corner, bitter winter's only child.
A snowy shadow from afar, but for the honey in the air.
—"Plum Blossoms" by Wang AnShi, clearly creative in his titles
Plum trees flower in late winter. Chinese artists decided this meant it was a resilient plant, and because its flowers last until early spring, also decided it was a symbol of surviving to a better time. This meant, in several cases including Wang's, losing their job in the government but enduring and definitely getting another job. I don't think they succeeded, but don't quote me on this.

There's also a funny idiom about "looking at the plums to stave off thirst", from an alleged general who was leading thirsty troops and told them to look ahead at non-existent juicy plums. This doesn't really have much symbolic meaning.

Alyssa's Romantic Takeout Advice: Do not give. It will be freezing cold when you can get these, so invest in warm packs instead. Or actual plums.


3. Peony

This play, The Peony Pavilion, actually has a TV Tropes page. I'm amused.

You might remember from the lotus quote above that peonies are seen as a symbol of wealth. And that's mainly because they're ridiculously expensive—in the past, and now as well. Its no less pricey cousin is the orchid, with similar meanings.

Alyssa's Romantic Takeout Advice: Definitely give. Everyone likes to be lavished on, and these come with a heavy price tag. On second thought, do not give. Your wallet will not survive it.


4. Willow trees

Winds blow and willows sway and the sweet air swells.
— Do not stay Jinling taverns, Li Bai (title by Google translate)
Now, I know this isn't exactly a flower, but I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about the homophone of 柳 (willow) and 留 (stay). In many poems, willow trees symbolise reluctance to part from a good friend. In fact, many Chinese poems are in a class called 餞別詩, farewell poetry. Willow trees (amongst other things) are often prominent symbols in these.

Google also tells me willow trees symbolise beauty and by that extension prostitutes. I'd never heard of that, but then again the last time I studied symbolism in Chinese poetry was at age 14, and my teachers probably censored it. If it's true.

Alyssa's Romantic Takeout Advice: Please don't give. Trees are important in slowing down global warming.


I must admit, I failed to take the importance of flowers in Chinese literature into account when writing Winner Takes All. I'm trying to correct that while planning my new NaNoWriMo project — it has witches and potions, so flowers should appear often. There's a (currently flower-less) Pinterest board for those interested.

So, blookunity! Any of these flower symbolisms surprised you? What do flowers mean in your culture?


Twitter-sized takeout:
Did you know, I had a blast translating all the quotes myself. For more poetic translations, join my takeout army and instantly receive a Mulan translation!

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