Wang Wei’s winter plum blossom

Winter plum blossom 1
Winter plum blossom 1

A friend who is studying Chinese literature suggested this favourite  by Wang Wei as the starting point for me to draw an image. Here it is with the translation he sent with it below.


You, who came from my hometown,
can surely tell me hometown news.
The day you left, before the silk-curtained window,
Had the plum opened a winter blossom?

At first, I thought that perhaps a scene representing a last cup of tea with a friend before setting out on the travels would give some feeling of nostalgia for those left behind.Then I decided to try another perhaps more poignant view which could represent the sadness of the one left behind and lost love.Here are both. I would love to know which you prefer!

Images (cc) 2009 Hilary Farmer

Winter plum blossom 2
Winter plum blossom 2

6 thoughts on “Wang Wei’s winter plum blossom

  1. The transparent curtains on the second drawing are a nice touch! Is that a layer of snow on the blossoms? Is that instead a reflection of winter’s sunny glow? Doesn’t matter, it’s beautifully composed. That second image feels more winterish and filled with cold Yin energy. The first image feels warmer and more Yang. I don’t prefer one image over the other because they feel quite connected, yet distinctly separated, just as the two characters themselves might feel about each other.

  2. Thanks Max! I like the idea that the two images actually make a Yin-Yang pair even though they were not conceived that way.

  3. The second image is a more minimalistic interpretation of the poem, which appeals to my sensibilities, and I like how the snow on the branch evokes the cold and distance from home.

    The compositional differences between the two images are interesting: the first has an empty centre, the second a very strong centre. I can see how the empty centre expresses the longing of the narrator, but I still like the second image more. Maybe I’m just superficial!

    Buson’s haiku are a good place for strong images:

    Mossy roof, spring rain.
    Abandoned in the gutter
    is a child’s rag ball.

    [my own synthesis of other people’s translations, and containing various things that may not be in the original.]

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments Tom! I have received other comments by email and so far overall there is a slight preference for the second image…
      Perhaps I can come up with something for the haiku. Will keep you posted!

  4. Thanks for putting one of my favourite Jueju (the forerunner to Japanese Haiku) to compu-art, and not just once but twice!

    The really interesting thing to me is that the two images offer two very different readings of the poem, especially regarding which of it’s elements it emphasizes.

    The traditional reading of this poem, the one my professor talks about, is that Wang Wei bumps into someone from his hometown and he wants to know how his wife is doing. However, courtesy requires that he not ask such a question directly, so, he asks instead about the tree that sits just outside her window – the window with silk curtains surely looks out from a woman’s room, and the poem has the most emotional tension if it is Wang’s wife’s window.

    This reading is beautifully captured in the second image.

    My classmate has a different reading. She believes that the poem is about two guys who have the freedom to venture far from their homes and have conversations about the things they’ve both left behind. It doesn’t matter if it’s plum-blossoms, spouses, curtains or whatnot. The significant thing is that they have the social freedom to have these conversations, while their loved ones have only the seasonal show of the winter plums to look out at from behind curtained windows.

    I like looking at the first image with this reading in mind.

    The Yang and Yin associations that Max points out are very interesting because they also match up with the yang (men and their freedom) and yin (women and their cloistered beauty) elements of each reading.

    I prefer a third reading, though it is against the grain of the Chinese poetic interpretive tradition. I like to imagine that Wang Wei, one of China’s greatest nature-poets, is genuinely interested in the state of a favourite plum tree, that that is the first thing that comes to his mind when he thinks to inquire after the affairs of his hometown. In this reading, it isn’t people, but nature itself that takes centre stage.

    In both paintings, the plum blossoms are beautifully illustrated in their winter glory, and this makes me happy.

    1. Thanks for your comments Grant! I’m really happy that my thought process with respect to the poem was so close to both the “official” poetic analysis and the other class thesis you mentioned. Clearly any illustration of this poem would have to involve plum blossoms in some way but to invoke the feelings that the poem seems to bring out, I explored these two options to frame them.
      I’m glad you like them both!

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