莫待无花空折枝 Plucking empty stems

空折枝 plucking_empty_stems




Golden Robe

The gentleman is advised not to treasure the gold-embroidered robe (wealth and riches)
The gentleman is advised to cherish and use well the time of youth
When a beautiful flower blooms, it is at that moment the natural time to snap the stem (pluck it)
Wait not till there are no more flowers, and you snap the brittle empty stems in vain

–Du Qiu Niang/The Lady Du Qiu

Written by a rather obscure lady poet, the 金缕衣 Golden Robe was still collected into the famous canon and anthology, the 唐诗三百首 or the Three Hundred Tang Poems.

I still remember learning this poem from my Chinese teacher, 卓老师 Ms Zhuo. Most Sporean students study Chinese as a second language, and Ms Zhuo was always lamenting about the sorry state of our Chinese studies; though a few bright sparks among us gave her some consolation and comfort — those who have been studying Chinese officially as a First Language (much tougher material and exam standards) as well as the Taiwanese and Hong Kong classmates who are naturally native speakers of Chinese.

I remember Ms Zhuo earnestly explaining to us the poem’s meaning, that rather than single-minded pursuit of earthly treasures, wealth, power, pleasures, one should cherish above all else that light-footed and fleeting Time, and make full use of the moments and opportunities as they present themselves.
And naturally the wise-asses among us wise-cracked: Ah, Teacher, you mean 人不风流枉少年 If a young man is not promiscuous (seize all the opportunities that come his way), he would have wasted his youth.

On a more somber note, as Time flies and the years pass, and as I reach the summertime of my life, when I have trodden through and placed more years behind me than I probably will have ahead of me, the gentle prodding from the above lines are becoming evermore insistent.

I despair a little about just how fast and remorselessly time marches on. I wonder how many more blooming flowers I will have to look forward to. But most of all, my thoughts return more and more to the beautiful flowers in my life which I had forsaken, those gentle blooms that time, circumstances, my proud obstinate and willful Self had let slip by…
And the empty brittle stems and memories I am left clutching and plucking in vain.

Wait not till there are no more flowers, and you snap the brittle empty stems in vain


9 thoughts on “莫待无花空折枝 Plucking empty stems

  1. Nice blog. Reminded in a few minutes of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, and tangentially, 金缕衣 brings to mind Yeats’ cloths of heavens, and while on Yeats back to the theme of “When you are old” and “Sailing to Byzantium” and then on Greco-roman note, coming full circle to CP Cavafy’s “Ithaka”. Centuries and cultures apart, but words connect, just as they link our youth to our present and future, just adding on layers of meaning and appreciation which come from living day to day. I’m glad I did Higher Chinese, even if at the point it seemed unfair to have to give up my elective French for a language which I felt was foisted on me, and taught by angsty, dispossessed chinese-educated elites who scarred me by associating my linguistic incompetence with character failure. But Louis Cha and Chinese poetry redeemed everything.

  2. Welcome.

    Nice free association of poetry ‘intertextuality’ there.
    And I agree: shared principles or self-similar continuities between homeomorphic but still distinct groups, across Time and especially through cultural/language links-engagement, are fascinating and delightful to behold.

    No one does wuxia/swordfighting-writing with a grand historical (and phantasmagorical) narrative better than Louis Cha. But for those with a penchant for Chinese poetry, Liang Yusheng’s literary style and wuxia poetics should be very good reading…

    But why did you had to give up French?


  3. Good question – now that I’m finally free, I shd pick it up at Alliance. It was really an act pulled from an absurdist play – was dispatched to the PE teacher for Mandarin tuition which clashed with my MOE French classes. The school’s logic was that (1) one eventually would have to drop either art or language elective to keep within ten subjects, and (2) Chinese must learn Mandarin first. Found out years later that the former was not true, and the latter was just too loaded a statement for discussion. On hindsight, it’s hilarious. I’m a tad ambivalent about Liang Yusheng, though I should give his stuff another try someday. You may like this – http://www.poemmovie.com.tw/home.php

  4. Sounds like a tragic farce actually.

    I was wondering if it was because of some regulation or prerequisite, like the first reason you mentioned. I remember I did my Japanese and HCL without any issues; but that was quite some time ago when there were much fewer students offering these subjects.

    Louis Cha/Jin Yong is immense in his own way, but he will also be the first to say his writings may not match the grace and poetics of his peers. After all,:
    is not a perfectly matched couplet/duilian in rhyme, 平仄 tone patterns or imageries…

    Much appreciation for the link. It is fantastic!
    Am still exploring…

  5. To clarify:

    But I will always love Louis Cha/Jin Yong’s stories: I grew up within the 江湖/pugilistic realm he created, journeyed on his many quixotic quests, fought shoulder-to-shoulder with his heroes…my heroes…

    To say Jin Yong is my Tolkien will be doing him a disservice… he is much more than that.

    [Shucks. Now I seem to have put my foot in my mouth again…
    I love Tolkien too…

  6. Truly farcical given that a PE teacher was thrown in. Back in my schooldays, we were told Art Elective was too heavy for Higher Chinese students with third languages, so we had to drop either elective by Sec 3. The issue was relatively rare since there weren’t many AEPians then. A classmate with greater tenacity eventually appealed to MOE and kept all subjects.

    On balance, I think it’s a good start to building one’s character – like the opening to a Douglas Adam, Neil Gaiman or Haruki Murakami story. Interesting to have Tolkien compared to Jin Yong – they both teleport the readers to new realms, and are good traditional storytellers. My mom had the exact same comment on Jin Yong’s style when she tried to switch me to Liang Yusheng’s books! Jin Yong develops his characters and themes very well. He probably provides a common point of reference for many ethnic Chinese (thanks in part to HK TVB).

    I’d to reroute a trip during the China rail travel rush because of the Xinjiang riots, and ended up at Yinchuan which was completely off my radar. It turned good the minute I realised that was the 西夏 site, and once I thwarted the great firewall to post it on Facebook, there were many excited responses reminiscing about 天龍八部 :) Still, in preparation for that trip, I unearthed my Kitaro CD and bought Liang Yusheng’s 七剑.

  7. Hi.

    The AEP was something I did not have the gumption to take up at 13, though it would have made one parent really pleased (mother graduated from art school), and the other parent much less so (very pragmatic businessman father). I had another chance after the O-levels to go for the Humanities Scholarship Programme (no brainer actually, considering how much more I enjoyed my language and humanities subjects, and was probably stronger in them as well) but I was pretty involved in my math and science studies by then, and so took the lily-livered way out by simply continuing with them and ended up in JC in the infamous SO1 course, the most hardcore and most boring of all the Science-Math course combinations — double maths double science (Math C, Advanced Math, Chemistry, Physics).

    Later in architecture school, it was a little intimidating to meet my fellow studio mates who were from AEP, showing off their rather polished and extensive portfolio of works they had already put together, even as raw first-year plebes. Of course these same confident art-isans and design extraordinaires were later lining up beside my drafting table, eager to receive tuition in Force Mechanics for the Building Construction class, or get some pointers in Wittgenstein’s Ornamentalism or in basic Kant-ian epistemology towards reading his Critique of Aesthetics or even just in Logic 101, for my beloved Theory & Philosophy of Architecture class.
    [most ironic thing was, I eventually ended up back in math and science, doing a field of study that has EGGHEAD stamped all over it: Computational Quantum Chemistry. Ha…

    Heh… yellow bulldozers and little mongolian fur hats certainly build the character and lay the sly gambits for future revelations, in a good story. As does a bowl of petunias…

    Hmm, Tolkien as a “traditional storyteller”.
    Very engaging statement. Both for and against of course. Tolkien, as he had said so himself, certainly followed and built upon the antecedent model for English mythology and fantasy, The Faerie Queene, and even earlier still, the Old Saxonic epic, Beowulf. But as Thomas Warton had shown before:
    “That peculiar and arbitrary species of Fiction which we commonly call Romantic, was entirely unknown to the writers of Greece and Rome. It appears to have been imported into Europe by a people, whose modes of thinking, and habits of invention, are not natural to that country.
    In a word these volumes are the first specimens extant in this mode of writing. No European history before these has mentioned giants, enchanters, dragons, and the like monstrous and arbitrary fictions. And the reason is obvious: they were written at a time when a new and unnatural mode of thinking took place in Europe, introduced by our communication with the east.

    The underpinnings of traditional Norse mythology within Tolkien’s work are unmistakable; but I remember, as a young boy and devout Tolkien adept devouring anything and everything on Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, I read his posthumously published collected notes and documents in The History of Middle-earth, where he expressed his lifelong desire to move beyond the natural ‘capture’ of English fantasy literature by the strong traditions of Norse mythology and Saxonic tales, through his most daring project: the construction of an entire new alphabet and language (much like what the Trekkies would do later with the Klingon language) to be employed within a new fantasy fiction. Tolkien, no mean linguist himself (especially in Old Norse), ultimately left the language project unfinished; but the fruit of his labours were to eventually culminate into the book The Hobbit, the predecessor of the Rings trilogy.

    Basically, what I mean to say is that Tolkien’s Middle-Earth fictions (Hobbit, Rings trilogy, and especially The Silmarillion), rather than traditional storytelling following familiar antecedents and models, was actually a purposefully-planned undertaking to break away from the Traditional into new uncharted fantastic realms. But of course the fact that Tolkien has been such a towering influence in fantasy writing for much of the last century, means that his works have now been taken as models for modern fantasy writers to follow, turning Tolkien himself into a Tradition indeed…

    [At this point, need to wax lyrical about my favourite Tolkien work, The Silmarillion, his lyrical epic and definitive prehistory narrative of the genesis and genealogy of the Middle-Earth realm. The Silmarillion is Tolkien’s Genesis, his Pentateuch and Torah, his 诗经/Book of Odes and his 史记/Grand Histories, his Ramayana and his Mahabharata and especially, his Ragnarök. ]

    Heh. Yep, that little remark on Jin Yong’s duilian couplet is a well-worn inside joke and reference shared by Jin Yong fans, obviously across generations as well!

    Must had been a wonderful rail trip to Xinjiang. Central Asia has been an enduring passion…
    I like 天龍八部’s treatment of 西夏, and 七剑’s forbidding 天山 is magnificent. I also enjoyed 书剑恩仇录’s contrasting descriptions of the bleak desolate landscapes of the 西域/Western Regions inhabited by proud and thriving nomads.
    Till this day, little fur hats can stir up a a response in me…


    [Apologies for this strange, rambling response to your innocent comments. The last several days have been extremely Dissipating for me, having had to deal with tiring emergencies and worldly intrusions. Responding to your comment, while admittedly in a most indecorous and languid manner, has allowed me much relief and catharsis, and enabled some reclaiming of Equanimity… imagined or otherwise.

  8. Plebs! And artisans?! Hard resisting taking the youthful arrogance down a peg or two? :)

    I wouldn’t have guessed you were in architectural studies. It’s selective perception, but it did felt for a moment that you went through what I gave up on – an odd alternate reality script. I was allowed to do arts in JC after promising to pick a profession, but I switched from archi to arts even before first term started, to hilarious warnings that came surprisingly not from parents but concerned friends. To match their dramatic energy, I delivered an unrepentant response, “Yes, dreams die (to mockingly maudlin strands of Massanet’s Meditations or 小虎隊’s 紅蜻蜓). It’s part of growing up. But the dreams you’ve murdered will always return to haunt you.” Of course I was happily wrapping myself up with the layers of meanings and savoring the delicious ironies, and distracting myself from the scariness of straying from the well-trodden path – to accept henceforth that I would be accountable for my own successes or failures.

    Oh dear, I guess I should apologise and qualified when I say traditional; it’s so easy as a lazy person to dumb things down because to simplify without losing the essence is just too much trouble especially when not many grasp the distinction. And to take the easy way out by focusing on the commonalities to move forward and leaving the differences unsaid, reducing things very much to the intersection and not appreciate the whole. Yes, Louis Cha and Tolkien are very different, and the commonality to me is just they created worlds which I could easily step into, and are good storytellers that offer structure, unlike say, James Joyce (sorry if you’re a fan of James Joyce). Whenever I think of Tolkien, I seldom go beyond “Norse, Beowulf, germanic heroic tradition, new worlds”, before I get lost in the worlds and suspend my thoughts. Yes, I’ve been duly chided on this.

    Warton had shown? Hmm. Without a doubt? :)

    Wittgenstein is brilliant. World can be boorish. Hope the balance has been restored :) If anything, there’s the lovely mid-autumn coming up.

  9. :P
    Oh dear, am starting to regret using those descriptions… And I wonder who the foolishly arrogant one really was then; them, or me?

    Oh no, I should be the one to apologize! My frazzled mind has the shameless habit of running away with the most mindless conjunct-ed avowals and fragmented ramblings.
    It has gotten me into no end of trouble before; my apologies once again:
    Apologies for my driveling gobbledygook…
    Like an addled spider spinning senseless webs, they are just fragments of a frazzled mind and are quickly blown away like so much as the lightest of cobwebs.

    Archi will always be dear to me. So dear in fact, that I may had once thought that I can grasp architecture better not as a practitioner of the craft, but more as one who experiences architecture.
    Of course, this can also be interpreted as a cowardly rationalization.

    Fantastic and dramatic response to your friends. And I love the line:
    “But the dreams you’ve murdered will always return to haunt you.”
    I’ve tried saying this line many times now while playing 小虎隊’s 紅蜻蜓…but I just can’t seem to get it to come out right. But then, I’m no Nicky Wu.
    [just jesting, that is truly a great line]

    I am looking forward to the coming mid-autumn season in the coming month. Am just hoping that the returning haze of this past two days will not persist till then…

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