Plum Blossoms in Winter —by Jinny Batterson
One of the pleasures I most enjoyed during the school year I spent in Ya’an, Sichuan (2008-2009) was taking solitary walks along paths through the upper reaches of our campus and the surrounding small villages and farmland. The school where I was a foreign teacher had over 20,000 students, so solitary walks would not seem to have been practical. However, much of the activity on campus took place around the dorms or classroom buildings, or in the adjacent commercial areas in the flat land near the river that bisected the town. At certain times of day, especially in cold or foggy weather, the paths and trails further uphill, near the campus tea plantation or up beyond the graduate dorms, were nearly empty. During part of the Spring Festival holiday that year, my husband and I stayed on campus, awaiting the arrival of Chinese friends whose transportation challenges made them several days later than originally expected. The campus had pretty much emptied out—students had gone home to be with their families at this most important of Chinese festivals. Some faculty members were also away visiting extended family; most of those still around were indoors hosting extended family meals at apartments or restaurants.
As I remember it, one chilly early afternoon in mid-January I walked up toward the complex that included several graduate dormitories around a central courtyard. The gate to the complex was shut and locked, but the small manmade lake just below it was still accessible. The lake area had been lovingly landscaped—there were pebbled pathways, a small island, a rock face adorned with a recirculating waterfall, and lotus pads, now shriveled and dormant, that had put out blossoms earlier in the year. Trees had been planted on the island and around the perimeter of the lake. Most were leafless—willows and gingkos that had turned yellow and then shed a month or two before. When I looked more closely at some smaller trees I didn’t recognize, likely fruit trees os some sort, I noticed buds on their branches. By the time our friends arrived and we walked together to the lake, the buds had become blooms, small yellow “suns” amid the winter gloom.
Our friends explained that these were one of many varieties of Asian plum trees (Latin name: prunus mume; over 300 cultivars exist in China alone). Most of the time, blossoms came in white, pink, or red, so these yellow ones were somewhat unusual, perhaps specially bred at our agricultural school. Representations of blossoming plum branches abound in Chinese paintings. These hardy blooms that brighten short winter days are a beloved symbol of persistence and of overcoming adversity. They are planted everywhere in China. In most locations, the blooms appear sometime between early January and late February, so they often overlap the timing of Spring Festival (known in the U.S. mostly as Chinese New Year). People welcome them as the first harbingers of spring, a little like pussy willow buds in northern parts of the United States.
Images of plum blossoms are easy to find in popular Chinese culture—painted on scrolls or fans, photographed and featured in exhibitions, sketched onto teacups, embroidered into clothing. Good reminders when it’s cold outside or conditions seem bleak, that spring always follows winter, and that adversity never lasts forever.