Yu Pingbo 俞平伯
Translated into English by Mingtai Wu (伍銘泰)
This essay is by the noted poet, classicist and essayist Yu Pingbo, transliterated as Yü P'ing-pê in the original. It is reproduced from T'ien Hsia Monthly, vol.III, no.1, pp.63-67. Minor stylistic changes have been made in keeping with the format of China Heritage Quarterly. The intent of the essay recalls the Qing scholar-official Gong Zizhen's famous essay 'On the Pavilion for Sick Plum-blossom Trees' (病梅馆记).—The Editor
It was Sunday morning. A thin layer of cloud over the sky. The sun now and again showed his face through the cracks of floating vapour stealing a look, as it were, at the earth beneath. And a thousand and one strange incidents thereon, the follies of man and woman, were reflected before his searching eyes. But he remained unperturbed, a mere spectator, with perhaps a little smile hidden under his placid countenance. I was free for the day, and had a desire to see flowers. Was it not, indeed, an act well befitting a fine Sunday morning in early Spring?
I duly arrived at the door of a flower garden. The gate was not locked, and yielded to the touch of my hands. With a creaking sound it opened, to reveal a piece of even ground beyond. By the side of the wall on the west, there were three lowly houses. Beside the buildings was a well, over which was installed a windlass. The yard was well looked after, and row upon row of flower pots were displayed thereon. There were camellias, peach blossoms, yellow jasmines, red azaleas, etc. A cool breeze swept by, full of the fragrance of flowers. Why, it had been but a short while ago that I still saw snow, and now the flowers had blossomed. How time has flown!
There was the florist, a man of about forty, his tanned face well wrinkled. He looked quite a genial sort. A pair of scissors in his hand, a coil of strings by his feet, he squatted on the ground, busy at work.
He was then engaged in binding up a prunus triloba. There were a few forked branches, and these fell to the ground, stems and leaves, at the swishing of his scissors. He felt no concern for these fallen twigs, but proceeded slowly to trim the tree, bending it slightly so that it assumed an almost oblong shape. He held it in its forced position, and tied a string closely round it. From one tree to another, from one pot to the next, the same process was being repeated.
It then dawned on me that he had first figured out in his mind a certain shape into which the flower trees were being forced. More than half the flowers in the garden had already been so treated by his deft hands. And so on the pots were trees all growing up seemingly with the same curves and outlines, each tree looking like the twin brother of another. The flower stems of two of the trees were rather delicate, and these, when bound, looked almost like two round fans. For that description of a flowering tree which a poet has given us in these words:
'Blown off by the wind, the branches skirt the water edge.
The leaves would now be scattered and then intermingle again.'
One must leave it to the imagination.
Though the flowers had blossomed forth so luxuriantly, I thought there was not the least bit of liveliness in them. They looked sad and grieved, and but barely alive. When I first entered the place, I imagined I felt the garden to be full of the vigour of Spring-time. On looking carefully, I realised it not to be so at all. Though the flowers looked beautiful and alluring in their different hues of scarlet, purple, blue and yellow, there was inside them a hidden greyness. They seemed to be airing their grievance, and praying for the mercy of man—for him to take pity and restore them to their original selves. This constrained and grieved appearance was not for the eyes of one who had tears. That cruel florist. Was he not a man himself?
This, of course, was merely a foolish conjecture of mine, a looker-on. The flowers could not talk, so what did they know? They were pained, and all they could do was to blossom beautifully, to give man enjoyment and to enable him to make money.
I could not help asking the florist: 'Is it not a pity to have these beautiful flowers all bound up?'
He replied: 'Dear Sir, pray stop your jokes. These flowers have been brought out of the cellar, and the branches and twigs are all unkempt. If they are not so treated, will there be a buyer for them? See that heapful of stems at the corner of the wall. They have all been cut down by me yesterday. How fast I work!'
Only then did I realize that the flowers had all been made to bloom by artificial heat. For otherwise, as it was only March, how could there have been so many flowers? I thereupon asked again: 'I think they look alright without being bound. Why should you take all this trouble?'
He repled: 'What if you do not like them so? Others like them. Only two days ago, His Excellency Chang sent his housekeeper to buy a hundred pots of flowers. The flowers had just been taken out of the cellar, and many had not yet been pruned. My customers now press for delivery, I have had to work day and night in order to oblige them. A hard life, this is!'
I then began to understand that such men depended on flowers for their living. As long as it pleased their customers, what did they care for the flowers? They were like slaves. The rich people would have certain flowers. They had not yet bloomed, and the trees were heated to make them bloom. The rich people would have the flowers and trees in a certain shape. They did not grow thus, and so they were treated with scissors and tied up with strings. If the florists would not do so, would there be people praising them, and would there be people patronizing them? Of course, on this earth, praise and money—yellow gold and white silver—are the most valuable things, unsurpassable things.
Be this as it may, the flowers were nevertheless truly pitiable. If I could feel so, how was it that the florist, who so carefully attended to them each morning and night, could feel at all unmoved, and busy himself all day long with scissors and strings? Could it be that apart from getting fed and clothed, a man had no other desire at all? It was all beyond me.
As I thought over these things, I was about to turn back and walkout. But my two feet stuck to the ground, in utter disregard of my wish to be away. I again conjectured foolishly that if I had the money, I would buy up all those flowers, and cheerfully free them from their bondage. All the evil forces and elements would be gone, and there would be left only their lovable simplicity, the beauty of nature.
While I was engrossed in such thoughts, I heard in the distance a queer howling sound. In a moment, through the open gate was seen a motor-car of wine colour. From within, a gentleman with white whiskers slowly came out, bringing with him a young girl of thirteen or fourteen. As soon as the florist saw them, he hastened to greet them, all smiles over his face: 'How early is your honour as well as the young miss!' The expression on his face as he greeted them was disgusting beyond words. I felt fortunate that I myself was not a rich man, so that he had yet no occasion to greet me with the same countenance, in face of which I would be able neither to cry nor to laugh.
The elderly man wore a fur coat, and had a sable cap on. One look showed that he must be a high official. The young girl had on a finger a diamond ring the brilliance of which just twinkled before the florist's eyes. But there was a paleness in her white face, no blood colour was visible.
Her father was heard to say: 'My dear Min, what does it matter if you lose money in gambling? Not to say four or five hundred dollars, even if the amount is larger, do you fear that 1 would not pay it for you? Do not become sulky all at once. Just look at the flowers and see how neatly they have been trimmed.'
The girl remained silent. With lowered head she trudged along step by step rubbing her eyes with a pink silk handkerchief, revealing a countenance that came from loss of sleep.
They walked for some ten odd paces. The old man turned back to look at her. He said: 'The games last night broke up rather late. Indeed, it already began to dawn by that time, and as you have been deprived of your sleep I brought you here to see the flowers in order to cheer you up. As you are tired, perhaps you can get some sleep. Let us not see the flowers, but go home.'
The girl mumbled a few words—very, very lightly—and being in a muddle myself, I could not hear anything.
All of a sudden there came rushing over me a thundering sound.
At the moment I had fallen into a sort of stupor, and forgotten where I was and when it was. The single stroke of the noon gun awakened me. I had stood there for nearly two hours, and the blazing sun was shining right over my head. Numerous incoherent thoughts were within me, but I could not say them out. I opened wide my eyes and stared into those many flowers, weeping, as it seemed, beneath the sunshine. After a while, I lowered my eyes, and slowly turned to go away. The florist was still engaged in trimming and binding up his flowers. He suddenly lifted his head, and exhibiting a set of teeth the colour of old ivory, gave me a cold smile.
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