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Parting is such sweet sorrow, in ancient china

Saying goodbye in ancient China was a serious affair

06·24·2013

As June comes to an end, graduates part. Today, it’s not such a big deal, but, in ancient times, a separation sometimes meant parting forever. So, seeing friends off was a sentimental affair, accompanied by an array of customs.

The custom of giving the branch of a willow tree to departing friends presumably comes from the Qin Dynasty (221B.C.-206B.C.), and it became a fixed tradition through later dynasties. People chose a willow branch as a gift for several reasons. Firstly, the willow in Chinese is called “ 柳树 ” (liǔshù), because “ 柳 ”(liǔ) shares a similar pronunciation with “ 留 ” (liú, “to stay”), an expression of unwillingness to part. Secondly, the willow has vitality and takes root wherever it is planted, so giving friends a branch of willow conveys good wishes. Lastly, the willow was believed to be able to protect people from evil ghosts, a way of wishing them a safe journey.

There are several poems concerning this custom. For example, in Wangzhihuan’s (王之涣) poem, Seeing Off  (《送别》Sòngbié), the poet writes: “近来攀折苦, 应为别离多。” (Jìnlái pānzhé kǔ, yīng wèi biélí duō. ” Too many partings here, the willows flourish no longer “).

Music is also part of the parting ceremony. In ancient China, instruments played on this occasion often included the ancient zither (古筝  gǔzhēng)and the Chinese lute(琵琶 pípa ). The music played was usually melodious, but also very sorrowful. Many classic literary works have the record of this custom. For example, the background to Bai Juyi’s (白居易) famous long poem Pipaxing (《琵琶行》), in which the poet vividly depicts the music played by a female Chinese lute player, is the poet seeing his friend at a port in the evening.

Drinking wine to see someone off was also the custom.  On a snowy nightfall, as depicted by Bai Juyi in his poem To My Friend Liu Shijiu (《问刘十九》Wèn Liú Shíjiǔ):晚来天欲雪,能饮一杯无?( Wǎn lái tiān yù xuě, néng yǐn yì bēi wú? ”  Evening comes and the sky threatens snow, why not come and drink a cup ? ” )Wine also consoles some people, and helps them to temporarily forget their troubles, as with the idiom “借酒消愁”( jiè jiǔ xiāo chóu “, cry in one’s beer ).

Time is also a factor. In ancient China the best time to see friends off was early morning, which provided convenience for the departing friend. Dusk was also a popular time.

So, as schoolmates say goodbye, perhaps they’ll want some sorrowful music, willow leaves, and a cup of booze, all as you watch your good friends ride into the dusk.

Image courtesy to Cultural China

 

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