by Hong Hai
The word 愁 (chou) is made up of 秋 (autumn) and 心 (heart). Originally, it depicted a mood of sadness as the warmth and gaiety of summer departs. Autumn leaves fall, and a bitter cold winter is around the corner.
Chou derived its early meaning from melancholy that can descend upon us as we move into the autumn of our lives. Our robust years are behind us. We no longer “fight and never lose,” as goes Mary Hopkin’s popular song “Those Were the Days.” The infirmities and loneliness of old age await.
Chou in literary usage captures a deep poignancy beloved of poets and song writers. It has no equivalent in the English language. In different contexts it could mean melancholy, sorrow, remorse, depression, despair or bitterness, or a combination of some of these feelings.
愁 of the last Tang dynasty emperor
Chou was immortalized in a poem by the last emperor of the Tang dynasty Li Yu (李煜). The poem ends with a plaintive cry:
You ask how long this chou will be?
It’s like a swollen river in spring, ceaselessly flowing east.
Li Yu, a renowned poet, abdicated his throne and the Tang dynasty fell. He was to spend the rest of his life in melancholy and reminiscence. Chou plunged him deep into his soul, searching meaning in his triumphs and tragedies, loves and losses. This inspired some of the finest poetry in Chinese history.
Is there a unique aspect of Chinese psyche that, in some perverse way, edifies chou so that poets and writers seem obsessed with it?
Lines from a poem by the noted Song poet Xin Qiji (辛弃疾) give us a clue:
When young I knew nothing of chou. but wrote about chou just to embellish my poetry.
Today I am immersed in chou, yet I am lost for words to describe it.
Xin Qiji was an outstanding military general, a renowned poet steeped in the classics, and an able administrator. But his talents were never fully recognized by the emperor. He spent much of his later life bitter over failure to gain high office.
Chou is so central to the human condition that no poet can be accomplished without touching on it in their best works.
Sustenance for the soul
A great deal of Chinese literature revolves around chou, viewing it as a baptism of the human spirit without which one cannot truly appreciate the meaning of life.
Li Qingzao (李清照), arguably the greatest of Chinese women poets, spent the second half of her illustrious life deep in chou over the loss at a young age of her husband, a fellow poet and soul mate. Her unremitting grief was sustenance to the heart that penned some of the most moving verses in Chinese literature. The cryptic final line of her classic 声声慢 (“Word after Word”）reveals a tormented soul:
This dark abyss in my heart, the word chou cannot adequately describe it.
In later life Li Qingzhao moved south to Hangzhou where she devoted herself to writing poetry and editing her late husband’s literary works.
The love poems of her early life in Jinan, Shandong are still the best loved. They captured the passion of chou in a young widow. Perhaps it was a necessary step toward making her whole.
Do we have to experience the depths of chou to mature and deepen the spirit?
Do we need to reflect on loves lost or unrequited, or ambitions unfulfilled or careers ruined, before we truly appreciate the beauty of life and relationships?
Without knowing chou, can our eyes be opened to the indescribable beauty in a fresh leaf of spring?
Or feel our hearts leap as we reconnect with a long-lost old friend?
Or be grateful for just enjoying fresh coffee and kaya toast in the cool morning air, relaxing on a verandah overlooking lush greenery?
Former CEO of Haw Par Corporation, Dean of the College of Business at NTU, and Member of the Singapore Parliament, studied Chinese literature and TCM in midlife. He loves Chinese poetry and studies it for enjoyment, which was a reason he barely scraped through the poetry paper in examinations for the BA degree in Chinese literature from 北京师范大学.
Pictures: Deng Lijun singing Ji Duo Chou, screenshot from You tube video of the same name. Autumn leaves by Vera Buhl – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7884029.
Li Yu in exile from Creative Commons. Li Qingzhao from www.guwenxuexi.comclassical24612.html