HAN Wo： Night on the Cold Food Day
Word-for-word exegesis 逐字注：
By Han Wo [Tang Dynasty]
恻恻dejected 轻slight 寒cold 翦翦chilly and fluttering like scissors 风wind
杏apricot 花flower 飘waft 雪snow 小tiny 桃peach 红red
夜night 深deep 斜slanting 搭hang 秋千swing 索rope
楼tower 阁pavilion 蒙胧hazy 细fine 雨rain (drizzle)中amid
Night on the Cold Food Day
by HAN Wo [Tang Dynasty]
Dejected and chilly is the wind, fluttering like scissors’ blades,
Apricot flowers white like snowflakes, tiny red are peach buds.
The night is deep, the swing ropes are left alone and still,
Pavilions and towers are only half, floating in the misty drizzle.
In traditional Chinese lunar calendar, a year is divided into 24 seasonal division points 二十四节气. Each season is divided into 6 points, marked by 15 degrees of the sun’s position at ecliptic. The first is of course Beginning of Spring (立春), February 4 or 5 on Gregorian calendar. Pure Brightness (清明) is fifteen days after Vernal Equinox (春分), with 15 degree of the sun’s position at ecliptic. Folk customs for Pure Brightness are mostly associated with memorial ceremony for the ancestry. On the day before Pure Brightness, no cooking smoke is allowed, for back in Spring and Autumn Period 春秋时代 (770-476 BC) there was a man called Jie Tui 介推 (or Tui of Jie 介之推) who, once accompanied the dethroned Jin Emperor Wengong 晋文公in exile, declined to come out of hermitage when Wengong took power again. Wengong set fire to the woods Jie Tui secluded, in hope of chasing him out, but Jie Tui, clasping a tree, was burnt to death. Emperor Wengong ordered that on the day Jie Tui died the whole nation should have no fire.
In this poem, the allusion of Cold Food Day is in the third line, which is usually the thematically most significant line in the classical quatrain. Swings were the allusion to the festival because from very early days there was a custom that on this day women would play the swing (of course when they played for fun they were also playing to provide pleasure for the watching male eyes). It was said that swing playing had evolved from the northern nations on horsebacks and gradually been taken on by women. The ropes became colorful. In the book Anecdotes from Kaiyuan and Tianbao Reigns (from714-741 and 742-755 A.D. under the famous lover-emperor Xuanzong)of Tang Dynasty, a book mainly about the everyday activities not recorded in the official history, there is such a note: “When Cold Food Day comes, many swings are erected in the palace, and womenfolk including concubines and royal maids receive orders to play when there are banquets and music.”
It has been generally expected that the line of a quatrain renders the most significant message, and here in this poem it implies the theme. This appears to be a poem purely about the sight of a yard, and the third line tells us that there is the speaker looking at the empty swings late at night. Thus, this poem becomes a poem of grievance and love. In Chinese, spring is almost always implies the wakening of love, and the phrases like spring intention (春意) or spring feeling (春情) all have a double meaning referring to love or desire, which is just a little less explicit that spring heart (春心), meaning the stirring of a mind for sexual love. This, again, was a typical poem by Han Wo who was famous for his book entitled “Fragrant Casket” with many poems about “spring feeling” and “spring heart” of womenfolk.