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Plum Blossoms in Nanjing

山園小梅

眾芳搖落獨暄妍,占斷風情向小園。

疏影橫斜水清淺,暗香浮動月黃昏。

霜禽欲下先偷眼,粉蝶如知合斷魂。

幸有微吟可相狎,不須檀板共金樽。

How Plum Flowers Embarrass a Garden

When everything has faded they alone shine forth
encroaching on the charms of smaller gardens
their scattered shadows fall lightly on clear water
their subtle scent pervades the moonlit dusk
snowbirds look again before they land
butterflies would faint if they but knew
thankfully I can flirt in whispered verse
I don't need a sounding board or wine cup

林逋 Lín Bū (967-1028)

(Poems of the Masters; translated by Red Pine/Bill Porter, Copper Canyon Press, 2003)

梅花 méihuā. Song dynasty poets were enamored with them. Prunus mume, Chinese plum, Japanese apricot, ume from the Japanese, mei from the Chinese, winter plum – the flowering tree goes by many names.

The annual International Plum Blossom Festival begins in late February. By March, the Zhongshan national park on the edge of Nanjing is bursting with five-petal blossoms.

A few months ago, when a friend asked “what is Nanjing famous for?” I answered, “the massacre.” True, but a nicer answer would have been the plum blossoms. The festival officially launched in 1996, and while it still seems to be a well-kept secret, its organizers are aiming high, an event to rival Japan’s cherry blossoms. The “international” month-and-a-half festival is one the city government’s website boasts attracts millions.

I visited on a Wednesday, when only a sprinkling of people milled about. Sometimes I walked for full minutes without seeing anyone at all, a beautiful rarity in urban China. Many of the people there were workers pruning trees, or elderly people who seem to congregate in parks.

The smaller numbers might also have been because I entered the part of the park that required a ticket, leading to Plum Blossom Hill and the gardens staged after famous scenes from the novel Dream of the Red Chamber. I realized on my way out there was a back gate standing wide open.

That was toward the tail end of the festival, a beautiful late March afternoon. There were still quite a few blossoms, even if the lady selling tickets next to the big PLUM BLOSSOM FESTIVAL sign said when I asked where to find them, “oh, plum blossoms? Those are all gone.”

I would lose money on a bet to differentiate between plum and peach and pear blossoms, or cherry, but trees all over the mountain were still in bloom. There might have been some jasmine blossoms thrown in there, too, possibly osmanthus. Without a field guide it was hard to say.

As early as the blossoms come, the trees bear fruit in June and July, coinciding with the rainy season of East Asia. The downpours are called 梅雨 méiyǔ, the plum rains. The fruit is used to make sour plum juice, 酸梅湯 suān méi tāng, and of course 梅酒 méijiǔ, plum wine.

The Asian plum trees originated in southern China around the Yangtze river, later spreading to the other parts of Asia. There are rumors of a tree in Hubei province dating from the Jin dynasty, some 1600 years ago.

Plum blossoms are important in traditional painting, invested with a wealth of cultural and symbolic meaning, named in a long series of numbered lists: one of the four season flowers, one of the four nobles, the five petals symbolizing five fortunes.

While unequivocally proclaimed the city flower of Nanjing, there’s a bit of a contest over national flower status. The plum blossom since 1964 has been the national flower of the Republic of China, which is to say, Taiwan.

The Qing Dynasty declared the national flower of China the peony. The People’s Republic has gone through several nomination phases, but no single flower has been ratified as the final choice. Several factions were pushing for a dual-flower recognition of both the plum blossom and peony.

On the way out, I went past part of the Nanjing branch of the UNESCO-recognized world heritage Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

It’s a large park. I was wandering in the palace part, apparently still a hike from the actual tombs. The layout is similar to that of other famous imperial locales, the Forbidden City among them: thick-walled gates, wide outdoor corridors leading ever inward to taller guard towers and inner buildings.

Toward the back I ended up in a landscape that looked a bit like the Secret Garden. I kept wandering, not sure where it would lead, but eventually it looped back around to the palace complex where I could stand by the parapets and look down at the walkers and steamed-bun sellers below.

Reflections

Usually, time passes by unnoticed. One rarely realizes the significance of a moment while it is happening. Instead, appreciation is found in reflection.

For me, studying abroad has been a time to really learn to live in the moment- to realize exactly what I am doing, while I am doing it, and how amazing it is. And to truly soak it in.

My last full weekend in Europe, my entire study abroad group visited the Greek island Crete, and stayed in a city called Chania. Crete is the largest Greek island, and the farthest south- one of the closest parts of Europe to Africa.

While I would say that every part of Greece, and Europe for that matter, has beauty, Crete had a unique beauty all its own. The weather was so perfect that we could’ve swam- 70 degrees. The water was an intense bright blue that pictures do not capture. The island itself has beautiful, huge hills and a rocky coast. Chania used to be a Venetian port (think: Venice) and it reminded many of my classmates of the Italian town (minus the canals, of course).

My group did have a busy weekend in Crete. We visited an archaeological site and museum, and aimlessly explored the town. However, the most significant moments there for me were when we walked to the Venetian lighthouse by the coast, and sat as a group, just talking, laughing, and looking at the water. A Greek island, unsurprisingly, is a good place for that.

Ok, it sounds cheesy and over-sentimental. But as I write this, I’m sitting in my own house in Minnesota, and I can’t help but be sentimental about the last four months- they feel like a dream now.

In my four months in Europe, I visited eight countries and 15 cities. I (attempted to learn) two new languages. I made 28 new friendships. I stood feet away from the Pope. I hiked mountains. I saw the Mona Lisa, The David, the Acropolis, the Coliseum, and the Sistine Chapel. I swam in the sea for the first time. I ate a ridiculous amount of gelato, pizza, pasta, and gyros.

But I can already tell that what I am going to take away from this trip is more than just checking some sights off my bucket list. There were other experiences just as impactful as those: my 28 new friendships with students in my study abroad group, my study abroad advisors, and their three daughters who came with on our trip. My professors of all nationalities. The Greek woman who ran the bakery on my street in Athens. The barista at the coffee shop on my street in Rome. The tellers at the grocery stores. And the completely, utterly random people I met on every leg of my journey and bonded with for some reason or other. Every single person I have met and every single experience I have had has given me a new perspective on life. As a college student, that’s all I want. That’s all I can ask for. I just want to grow.

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