Retrospective poetry of Spring Festival
Spring Festival, also known as Lunar New Year, is one of the most anticipated, large-scale and celebratory seasons in Chinese culture. Around this time each year, families and loved ones gather no matter how far away or busy they are. Children who are on winter breaks, adults would be on national holidays and all family members would reunite as a large household for Reunion dinner (年夜饭) and staying up together (守岁).
Weeks before Spring Festival, from metropolises to small towns, you can see decorations in bright red hung up around both residential and recreational spaces — all sizes of red Chinese knots, red lanterns, decorative firecrackers, “福” (meaning bliss or good fortune) calligraphy and hand-cut red paper art portraying blossoming flowers, auspicious animals and sometimes vivacious kids with great intricacy and vividness. Making handcrafted decorations, going to temple fairs, figuring out lantern riddles and exchanging festive goods are the activities that make up most of the fun and laughter during these days.
Among these rituals, one historically-practiced and valued cultural practice is writing poems. With brushes filled in black ink, literates handwrote two rhyming and propitious phrases known as spring couplets (春联) on two pieces of red rectangular Xuan paper.
Even now, families and households hang up three-set couplets onto their door frames. These short poems would usually contain new-year wishes, depict auspicious scenes and express expectations and wishes for good fortune to each other. The following recollection of poems including couplets offers a retrospective glimpse to the historical celebration of Lunar New Year in the most traditional and poetic literary forms.
“Yuan Hui Shi” by Cao Zhi (192-232)《元会诗》曹植
Period: State of Cao Wei, the Three Kingdoms period of China
The prince of the state of Cao Wei, Cao Zhi, was more widely known for his poems and artistic talents. He wrote this four-word poem at a New Year assembly celebrating the Spring Festival. Probably created with the company of people from high standing, this poem starts by praising the admirable guests and the auspicious season of the New Year. As he contemplates the past years, he expresses his deep longing for eternal and unending joy and laughter.
“Spring Couplet” by Wang Xizhi (317-420) 春联 王羲之
Period: the Dong Jin dynasty
In this short poem of spring couplet, the famous calligrapher, politician and writer Wang Xizhi depicted a vibrant scene of birds chirping from northern country to southern suburbs, spring rain and winds awaiting the new year, new season and new blessings. Neatly parallel, his spring couplet is still widely used and hung by many each year.
“Yuan Ri Shu Huai” by Lu Zhaoling (634-689)《元日述怀》卢照邻
Period: the Tang dynasty
This poem was written on the first day of the year by the Tang poet, Lu Zhaoling, who appeared to be undergoing drastic turbulence amid his political career. In this poem, he conveys the earnest wish for the good and prosperity of life while also welcoming every new change at the same time.
“Su Zhong Qing” by Yan Shu (991-1055) 《诉衷情-海棠珠缀一重重》晏殊
Period: the Northern Song dynasty
This beautiful and simple poem was written by the Northern Song dynasty politician, poet, songwriter and essayist, Yan Shu. In short, soft and colorful words, he describes how the flow of time resembles the gentlest wind, touching and swinging flowers and leaves. His poem reminds me of those impressionist paintings that seem to only appear in dreams — mysterious yet touching on a personal level.
“Yu Yin” by Wang Siwei (1526-1585) 《馀音》张四维
Period: the Ming dynasty
This poem by Zhang Siwei is a playful and vivid description of the festive activities surrounding the new year, as he was looking forward to fresh sceneries, new parties and people.
“Hua Kai Ji Jie” (Season of Blossoms) by Meng Wenhao《花开季节》 孟文豪
This modern poem written by Meng Wenhao was later recited at a national Spring Festival Gala and produced into a short song under the same name, “Season of Blossoms.” Wenhao uses pigments of snow, sunlight, dreams and flowers to convey the inception of a new year, filled with new hope and love.
For me, Spring Festival, or “Guo Nian”— (过年) literally translated as “pass the year,” meaning the celebration and welcoming of the coming year — is remembered by the excitement of returning to my grandpa’s countryside cottage in Southeast China. It means playing firecrackers in freezing temperatures with frozen earlobes and a runny nose, devouring homemade specialty jiaozi and yuan xiao which are glutinous rice balls with sweet and amorous sesame or red bean paste inside, and tailing adults around for lucky money. Winter break has been the long-awaited retreat for my entire family, as well as my annual homage to simplicity and innocence that is reminiscent of a distant past. As time passes and surroundings change, reading these poems still reminds me of the gentlest and softest emotions that fill people with love, passion and hope.
Correction: A previous version of this story contained Korean characters instead of Chinese characters. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.