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WORDs – Yuan Mei’s Ancient Wall
JP Seaton

line d

? ? ? ? ?
word-for-word blue gray green moss, lichen makes little blossom
        So: moss colored moss (or lichen colored lichen) / put out or make a little flower

The first character represents a color that includes, for the Chinese, all the colors from the color of clear water, to black, and through the blues and greens you’ll see on a mountain side. Questioning a Chinese friend, I discovered that it is also a color limited to living things. A Green book and a blue book were not?, but things outside the window we were sitting by that appeared almost the same colors as the books (to me) were not?. It is also used for the bright green of young grass and spring leaves, and, therefore, by extension, for youth and young people, from “teenagers” somewhere into the lower twenties. It’s a powerful color. Picture mountain scenery: it is all?. Google up some if you don’t have any out the window (or if yours is covered with snow).

The verb ? is unusual with flowers… I’ve never seen it anywhere but this. Plants don’t usually “make” flowers, they usually flower: in fact the lower half of the character for flower itself means to change, to metamorphose, and poets often play on that fact. I don’t know why the word ? is here…it could be a flaw in the poet’s line, but I doubt it. More likely a flaw in my knowledge. I was pretty sure, as I went through my best references, that I’d find? ? as a compound, and so an allusion to some source that would clarify a meaning for the line somewhat different from what I had come up with, but that wasn’t the case. If it has any special effect, it might lie in it’s construction: it’s a “person” and “sudden”. Does that fit in any way here?  Probably the power of the poem is in its simplicity. The meaning is or was here now. The first two characters of the line are also found in the last line of the Wang Wei’s Deer Park (the one I call the empty mountain poem). Maybe Yuan Mei is comparing his experience in the old garden by the ancient wall with Wang Wei’s experience (a partial description of which you may find in the essay linked to above). Although neither moss nor lichen “flowers”, Wang Wei didn’t make a botonist’s distinction. Some mosses do make very pretty little “efflorescences”. And, finally, maybe we ought not to forget that the flower character usually refers to a pretty girl. Yuan Mei had a powerful and varied sexual appetite.  It most certainly didn’t exclude young servants girls.

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