Thursday, 21 May 2015

The magnolia wall 辛夷坞

The magnolia at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore.
Each time when I visit Gardens by The Bay in Singapore, there is a particular section situated by the riverside next to the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest dotted with magnolia trees that I would always love to take a stroll for sentimental reasons.  At those moments, two kaleidoscopes of different recollections of the past will emerge – the first is that of the magnolia trees that used to circle around the fence of my primary school and the second is a poem by Tang Dynasty’s poet, Wang Wei's 辛夷坞 or loosely translated as “The magnolia wall”.

In local Malay folklore, as told by my Malay friends during those primary school days, magnolia trees are said to be trees that spirits love because of the fragrance that it emits. Young and innocent as we were, we believed that the magnolia trees around our school are the place that spirits like to gather after sunset and before sunrise. Sometimes, schoolmates will play prank that someone saw a white shadow by which tree and it will scare all of us to the extent that we dare not venture out of the classroom alone even to go to the washroom.

I can still remember of a mathematics teacher who likes to dictate that whoever that didn’t do the homework will get the punishment of standing by the magnolia tree for half an hour. So scared we were of the magnolia tree that we will forsake other homework just to ensure that by hook of crook, we will finish up the mountain load of homework that she dispense. Thinking back, how silly it was to believe that such a beautiful tree in full bloom will do us any harm. Alas, those were the days. The last time I pass by my primary school, I do not recall seeing any of the beautiful magnolia trees anymore.

Magnolia trees made a came back to my life during my Auckland days. At the time, I was taking Chinese lessons with Professor Teng. His garden was full of beautiful magnolia trees and the bloom during spring was a spectacular view. I told him of the Malay folklore; in return, he told me Wang Wei’s Magnolia Wall, the story behind the poem and how, for centuries, the Chinese have a great admiration for magnolia. Thus, it changed my fear of magnolia trees to that of an appreciation for its beauty.

Hereby are Wang Wei’s Magnolia Wall and my translation to English

辛夷坞  王维者 (701-761AD) 


Deep in the mountain,
The branches of the magnolia tree blossoms in red.
Though there is no human passing by,
Yet, they still bloom and wither as usual.

In this poem, the message that Wang Wei wishes to express is that we, the mortals, are like the blossoming of a flower. It doesn’t matter what others may say, as long as we know we did to our best.  As in the prime of life, the flower blossoms, and as at the end of life, the flower withers, thus we should live like the splendor of the summer flower and depart like the tranquility of the autumn leaf. Ultimately, the essence of magnolia is that of calmness, transcendence and at ease with oneself. Isn't that should be the essence of the mortal as well? 

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