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Ju symbolizes indifference to fame and wealth, homesickness

CHEN ALONG | 2018-05-03
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The ju painting by Zhang Tongceng in Qing Dynasty


Ju refers to all kinds of chrysanthemum that are native to China. As one of the four “gentlemen flowers” in Chinese culture, ju symbolizes elegant self-esteem, persistent pursuit of one’s dreams as well as homesickness.


Ju, referring to the chrysanthemum flower, is considered one of the four “gentleman flowers” in Chinese culture, together with plums, orchids and bamboo. Native to China, there are over 3,000 varieties of ju and it is grown widely across the nation. Written records of ju can be found in books that date back as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE).

Chinese people paid attention to ju at the dawn of its civilization not only because of connotation of a graceful posture, gorgeous flowers and elegant fragrance, but also, more importantly, it is resistant to cold and the can blossom despite severe frost. Influenced by these prominent features, Chinese people gradually shifted their interests in ju from its pragmatic value as an aspect of traditional Chinese medicine to the aesthetic values of symbolizing the virtue of humanity.


Elegant self-esteem
Ju blossom when thousands of flowers wither. When the piercingly cold wind blows and chilly frost falls, the ju flowers stand proudly and elegantly. Influenced by the Chinese aesthetic tradition of drawing analogies between the character of natural things and the virtues of humanity, ancient Chinese people considered ju to be a symbol of the lofty virtues of a gentleman.

Qu Yuan (c.340-278 BCE) was so far the first poet introducing ju into literary writings and endowing it with the aesthetic values which shaped the cultural significance of ju in China. Qu Yuan’s masterpiece Encountering Sorrow includes these two famous verses “At dawn the dew on Magnolia leaves I drain; At eve the petals of ju I dine.” As we can see in this song in the Chu style, ju served as foils to set off the image of the protagonist, a virtuous person who would never associate oneself with the vicious and dirty political forces.

There is not too much use of the ju symbolism in Qu Yuan’s works. The song Epilogue of the Rites of Sacrifice includes these verses “Orchids in spring we’ll lay and ju in fall for e’er and aye.” Orchids, as the messengers of the spring, for the first time have been associated with the ju in autumn, carrying the lofty spiritual characters that the scholars admired. 

Admired as the forefather of all hermit poets in Chinese history, Tao Yuanming (c.352-427) was another master who injected new vitality into ju. Harboring a lofty ideal of making the world a better one while facing the dark political situation and a frustrating political career, eventually Tao chose to live a reclusive life.  

Influenced by the glorification of seclusion at that time, many scholars chose to live a reclusive life as means to survive. Unlike most of them, Tao Yuanming discovered the value of a reclusive life. His well-known ballad-poem Homeward Ho includes these lines “My servants are giving me a warm welcome; My children are waiting at the door. Wild weeds have grown on the courtyard paths; But the pine trees and chrysanthemums remain.” Ju had specific spiritual value for Tao. At his residence at Xun Yang in present-day Jiujiang in Jiangxi Province, ju blossomed at the foot of the bamboo fence around his house. Ju flowers shared his joy of living a reclusive life as well as providing him with spiritual support by showing their backbone against the piercing frost.

Tao did not write too much about ju. However, his verses “I pluck hedge-side chrysanthemums with pleasure; And see the tranquil Southern Mount in leisure” became so famous that ju became the embodiment of the virtues of Tao Yuanming. Tao endowed ju with lofty pursuit and conscious alienation from worldly annoyance. This image of ju was widely accepted by scholars of later generations. Since then, ju has become an ultra-utilitarian cultural symbol that was closely related to the hermit culture.


Persistent pursuit
The personal integrity of scholars was closely associated with the social reality and their political ideals. Therefore, ju, for different scholars, symbolized different virtues admired by Taoists and Confucians respectively.

The Taoist idea of living a hermit life to avoid being disturbed or contaminated by the frustrating worldly affairs is just one aspect of the virtues that ju symbolizes. Ju also symbolizes Confucian ideas of enthusiastically engaging oneself in worldly affairs, by persistently pursuing one’s dream and showing enterprising spirit.

For example, a poem by Zhu Shuzhen in Song Dynasty includes verses “[A ju flower] would rather wither on the branch while maintaining its fragrance; Than dancing with the yellow leaves in the wind.” The ju does not change its fragrance in face of chilly frost. They provide an exemplary example for those who choose to maintain their integrity.

When the nation faced calamity, Confucianism appealed more to the scholars. The strong sense of political mission urged a large number of scholars to step forward bravely, joining their personal integrity with the unyielding national ethos to defend their nation. Heroes including Su Shi (1037-1101), Lu You (1125-1210) and Wen Tianxiang (1236-1283) all used the symbol of ju in their literary works to demonstrate their courage and determination. 

In one of the poems Su Shi wrote to his friend Liu Jingwen the verses “Lotuses put up no umbrellas to the rain; Yet frost-proof branches of chrysanthemum remain.” The lotus rising unsullied from the mud was a symbol of integrity. And, for Su Shi, the ju symbolized a more indomitable will because even if the flowers of ju were destroyed, its branches remained stood. Isn’t that as Ernest Hemingway once said: “A man can be destroyed but not defeated?”

Lu You was removed several times because he strongly opposed the imperial policy of begging for peace. Despite this frustrating experience, he never changed his loyalty to his nation. “A chrysanthemum is like an upright person; Its fragrance lingers after a long time.” For him, ju with lofty ideals and moral integrity best symbolized a frustrated patriot who maintained his or her loyalty.  

Regret at parting from one’s hometown and missing one’s beloved represent common emotions for all people living far from home. Chinese culture in particular places a particularly strong emphasis on one’s hometown and the ties with people who live there. This theme is regularly featured in Chinese literature.

The ju blossoms in autumn when ancient Chinese people ascend great heights to enjoy distant views. This custom exists because it was believed that would shorten the distance between them and their families far away. When they tried desperately to locate their hometowns, the ju that blossomed at the top of the mountains would easily trigger their memory of the ju in the courtyards back their homes. Hence, associating the ju flowers with the desire to reunite with beloved ones back in hometown became a natural move. 

Going through all kinds of hardship and dangers to avoid the chaos caused by the Rebellion of An Lushan and Shi Siming (755-763), great poet Du Fu (712-770) finally settled down in present-day Sichuan Province. With the help of his friends including Gao Shi (704-765) and Yan Wu (726-765), he was able to build a house by the Huanhua River.

However, his desire to return to his hometown drove him to abandon his settled life in the Shu region and launch a tough journey back home. During his homeward journey, when he was in Kuizhou, he wrote a series of well-known poems triggered by the autumn season. One of the poems goes “Clumps of chrysanthemum open again—tears for days now gone; Lone boat moored by a single strand—my heart in the gardens of home. Cold-mouth clothes everywhere urging speed with ruler and scissors; High above White Emperor City, the swift pounding of evening mallets.”   

For Du Fu, a person unable to return to one’s hometown was like a drifting boat that would never be moored. Tragically, Du’s homeward journey was obstructed by his impoverishment and illness, and he died in a drifting boat on the Xiang River. His strong desire to go back was shared by a large number of scholars who were forced to leave their hometowns due to war.

In his late years, Cen Shen (c.715-770) had a similar life experience as Du Fu. Sharing the same feelings about life, they both used ju to symbolize their feelings. Cen wrote “I struggle to ascend to a height; No wine to me was sent. Far away, I recall the chrysanthemum, back to my hometown, in the courtyard; Which probably now, blossom by the battlefield.” The war and separation associated the one’s hometown with the ju and wine in this poem. A sorrowful feeling symbolized by ju was further deepened.          


(edited by CHEN ALONG)