An Ode to the Summer Lotus
Classic Chinese poems to refresh your soul on a summer’s day
Almost a thousand summers have come and gone since Zhou Dunyi wrote Ode to the Lotus, and his love for the flower remains a hallmark of Chinese culture and Eastern philosophy.
In trying to understand the lotus flower meaning, many poets throughout history observed its beauty and have recorded their observations for future generations.
So find a cool spot to escape the heat this summer and enjoy a few moments of reflection with these original translations of classical Chinese poems.
Farewell to Lin Zifang at Sunrise in Front of the Temple of Pure Mercy
Yang Wanli (1127–1206 A.D.)
After all, it’s the West Lake in June, the middle of the year,
When the scene and breeze make it the peak among the seasons.
The green expanse of lily pads links the horizon with heaven,
And light reflecting on lotuses lends a divine hue to everything.
When Yang Wanli wrote this poem, travel was difficult, and war was brewing with the Jin Kingdom in the north. The poet’s friend, Lin Zifang, had just set off on a long journey, and Yang was worried about him. Looking out at the endless lotuses growing on the lake, the poet’s heart calmed down, and he captured that moment in verse.
Yang was one of the Four Great Masters of the Southern Song Dynasty (960–1279), but he felt isolated at times from the rest of the court officials. He treasured his lifelong friends like Lin Zifang, but they rarely got to see each other, and the separation pressed on Yang.
His short poem reminds us of the bittersweet end of summer vacation, the parting of friends, and the appreciation for the beauty that comes during hard times.
Even though there’s a whole world of worries out there, it’s worth remembering the beauty of the world. The seasons come and go each year, and we’re lucky to catch beauty at its peak.
Amid the hardships of life and feelings of loneliness, the lotus flowers are there to connect us with heaven and remind us to let go of our troubles.
Li Bai (701–762 A.D.)
Vibrant lotuses grow by a quiet spring,
In rays of light from the rising sun.
Autumn flowers in full bloom atop green water,
Their dense leaves woven together like verdant smoke.
Radiant blooms with an unparalleled fragrance,
I wonder if they belong in the royal court.
Knowing that frost will soon grow thick upon them,
and their ephemeral beauty will naturally fade away.
I hope that they can grow in the jade pond of the Queen Mother,
remaining forever bright and never decadent.
What’s the purpose of a poet’s life if not to add beauty to the world?
Li Bai was one of the greatest literary figures of the Tang Dynasty (618–907), China’s first golden age. He wrote this poem while wandering around the country trying to find a place for himself. He knew he belonged in the royal court, but he also enjoyed the peaceful ponds he found along the way. Ultimately, his hope was to transcend this world and reach Heaven.
Li Bai wandered the countryside multiple times in his life—sometimes by choice and sometimes by decree. He often gave away his money to those in need. Not long after this poem was written, his reputation floated like the fragrance of a lotus, and Emperor Xuanzong welcomed Li Bai to his court in Chang’an.
It’s common to feel unappreciated or overlooked, unlucky or left behind. Even Li Bai, one of the greatest poets in history, struggled to find his place. In fact, after spending a decade in the emperor’s favour, he was eventually exiled due to imperial conflicts.
Despite the harsh sentence, Li Bai left at a leisurely pace, writing some of his poetry as he met old friends along the way. It took him so long to leave the country and everyone had such a good time with him that he was pardoned before he reached the border.
Li Bai’s poems float like lotuses in the immortal waters of Heaven. His wish seems to have come true, since they’ve remained here for us, unblemished and bright, free of decadence for more than a thousand years.
Ode to Lotus
Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073 A.D.)
Many of the flowers that grow in water and on land
Are worthy of our admiration.
Tao Yuanming of the Jin Dynasty only loved chrysanthemums,
And ever since the Tang Dynasty, everyone loves peonies.
But I love the lotus alone, which came out of the mud without being dirty,
Rinsed in the water, it’s beautiful without being seductive.
The straight stem is hollow inside,
Growing without any branches or vines.
Its clean fragrance floating far and wide
Standing there perfectly upright and clean,
We can only admire it from afar, instead of fondling it with our hands.
I think the chrysanthemum is the recluse of flowers,
The peony is royal and wealthy,
And the lotus is the gentleman among the crowd.
A true love for the chrysanthemum hasn’t been seen since Tao Yuanming.
And who else shares my affection for the lotus?
Peonies, of course, are adored everywhere.
Wherever Zhou Dunyi lived, he would dig a pond to watch the lotus flowers bloom in the summer.
Zhou is the father of Confucian rationalism, and this poem came to define the qualities of the lotus flower that have made it a beloved icon of Chinese culture ever since.
Zhou’s works expound on Confucian and Daoist ideals of morality and living. This poem is one of many in which he helped to establish the metaphorical language that had such a profound impact on Chinese culture.
In this era where more people are clamouring for the praise of the masses than ever before, it’s important to remember the noble lotus flower, which is loved for its goodness rather than its popularity.
As people, we should follow our hearts and uphold our consciences like lotuses above the murky water. As long as we remain upright, our pure nature will rise above the tribulations and temptations of the world.
No matter where we are or where we come from, the symbol of the lotus flower is universal. Try to find a pond of still water this summer and spend a morning or afternoon reflecting on that scene of pure beauty. If you’re lucky, you might just experience the magic found in these ancient poems.