The Sanchon Hunjang has a little quiz for you. What do you guess is the title (and hence the topic) of the following poem by 鄭谷 정곡 (849-911) of the late Tang dynasty (618-907).
返蟻難尋穴, Retiring ants have difficulty finding their hole,
歸禽易見巢. As returning birds easily see their nests.
滿廊僧不厭, Though they fill the halls, bonzes are not bothered,
一個俗嫌多. Yet even one the secular man hates as being too many.
☞ 返: 돌아올 반, 蟻: 개미 의, 難: 어려울 난, 尋: 찾을 심, 穴: 구멍 혈.
歸: 돌아갈 귀, 禽: 날짐승 금, 易: 쉬울 이, 見: 볼 견, 巢: 집(nest) 소.
滿: 찰 만, 廊: 복도 랑, 僧: 종 승, 不: 아니 불, 厭: 싫을 염.
一: 한 일, 個: 낱 개, 俗: 속될 속, 嫌: 싫어할 혐, 多: 많을 다.
What is it that gives the ants difficulty in finding their hole while making it easier for the birds to find their nests? What could the monks not care less about en masse
while those of us in the mundane world get upset over just one?
Yep, that's right, the answer is falling leaves.
There are a few common symbols for autumn. On the positive side, there are blooming chrysanthemums as well as the vivid foliage of maples and ginkgos. Then there is the fact that all deciduous trees drop their leaves, which reminds people (especially those of a sentimental bent, like poets) of their mortality.
Among all those trees, the favorite example of falling leaves, at least among 한학자, is the paulownia
, or 梧桐 오동. 오동, not to be confused with 우동
, is fast and straight growing tree that produces pods of many seeds that were used for packing material or burned to make a premium grade of ink
, while the wood was used for furniture and other carpentry projects
. The paulownia was to the Chinese apparently something akin to what the buffalo was to the American Indians
. Paulownia timber may not taste as good as buffalo pemmican, but they're equally tough and dry in the mouth. The paulownia, however, has an edge over the buffalo because it was believed to be the only tree where the mythical 鳳凰 봉황
(unfortunately translated as "phoenix" sometimes) would alight. This is an advantage because the 봉황 heralds the birth of a sage, thus it's use in Korea's presidential symbol:
There is a Paulownia Island
at the southern port of 여수, but if you should go there in search of paulownia trees, you would come away disappointed. There is not a single 그루! They have 동백꽃
At any rate, here is what those 오동 leaves look like:
Oops...how did that get in there...um...as you can see...uh...that's 어우동
, and it looks like she's already shed a leaf or two...
Let's try that again:
Ah, yes, there we go. The leaves take an elongated heart shape. I'll bet you're itching to see how poets use this tree to signal the arrival of fall. Well itch no further:
〈秋懷〉鄭鎔 (정용) "Autumn Feelings" by ChOng Yong (c. 1587)
菊垂雨中花, The chrysanthemum droops down its rain-filled flowers,
秋驚庭上梧. As autumn startles the paulownia in the garden.
今朝倍惆悵, But this morning doubles my sadness,
昨夜夢江湖. For last night I dreamt of the rivers and lakes [that I had earlier enjoyed traveling to].
☞ 秋: 가을 추, 懷: 품을 회.
菊: 국화 국, 垂: 드리울 수, 雨: 비 우, 中: 가운데 중, 花: 꽃 화.
驚: 놀랄 경, 庭: 뜰 정, 上: 위 상, 梧: 오동나무 오
今: 이제 금, 朝: 아침 조, 倍: 곱 배, 惆: 실심할 추, 悵: 슬퍼할 창창
昨: 어제 작, 夜: 밤 야, 夢: 꿈 몽, 江: 강물 강, 湖: 호수 호.
Fall came so abruptly that it surprised the paulownia tree in his garden, causing it to suddenly drop its leaves, and reminding the author that autumn is here for real (he is calculatingly ambiguous about whether it is this year's fall, or the autumn of life that upsets him so). There is no more chance to enjoy water sports.
The reason that the paulownia has become a favorite symbol for fall is that it drops its leaves at the very beginning of the season. Some commentators say that it is also because the size of the paulownia leaf is so big (in China, at least, up to a meter across
!) that even one really catches your eye. As this young lad kindly demonstrates, a monstrous leaf or two falling make a good hint that autumn has really arrived.
A sidewalk strewn with leaves this size would make my
hole hard to find!