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The Wintersweet song is more than a meme

By BERLIN FANG for China Daily | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-07-08 00:53
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File photo: Fei Yu-ching, the singer of the song Yi Jian Mei. [Photo/Agencies]


When driving my son and two of his friends home from a fishing trip, I heard the three teenagers, two of them not Chinese speakers, break out singing "xue hua piao piao, bei feng xiao xiao". That was one of the most popular songs in my childhood, as well as a karaoke favorite. Exactly how it made its way to West Texas is a mystery to me, but I am glad.

The song is the theme music for its namesake television drama as well as a defining piece for Yuqing Fei, who retired from his singing career in 2019. The title of the song is Yi Jian Mei, which used to be simply the name of a poetic template (词牌) that determines the number of lines in a poem, the number of characters in each line and the rhyming scheme, among other things, something like iambic pentameter, the heroic couplet or the format of a sonnet. The poetic template, one of many, was most popular in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Most of the templates have beautiful names, but they gradually lose their initial meaning and become simply memory aids for a particular form of poetry. Yi Jian Mei (一剪梅) originally means a bough of wintersweet flower, also known as the genus Chimonanthus,or winter flower, a glorious, fragrant flower native to China.

In this song, the lyrics describe a lover pursuing his love against all odds, including the wind, snow and physical distance. The lyrics remind one of My Love Is Like a Red, Red Roseby Robert Burns, except that the wintersweet piece shows a more gritty type of love.

To a Chinese, wintersweet blossoming in winter in snow and ice conjures up thoughts about desperate situations and how we can handle them. Wintersweet blooms in winter. Pine, bamboo and wintersweet flowers are usually called the "three friends of winter" (岁寒三友). All of them do well in the cold, and they frequently become symbols of bravery and optimism in poetry and artwork to depict how the human spirit triumphs over adversity. This is the right song to be popular at a time when the world is experiencing unprecedented difficulties during the COVID-19 crisis.

At the current moment, there have been more than 11 million confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 536,000 deaths. Schools are suspended. Businesses are shut down. Jobs are lost. It is a time of extreme hardships for many around the world. Yet we endure, and we will triumph. Scientists and researchers in many countries are working around the clock to develop the medicines and methods to combat the virus that has wreaked havoc on livelihood and economies.

Wintersweet flowers are also harbingers of spring. They bloom from winter to the beginning of spring. I remember how we, as students at Nanjing University, used to travel to the wintersweet mountain (mei hua shan) in the suburbs of Nanjing to celebrate the coming of spring as we walked in the beauty and scent of the sweet flowers. I hope too that the world will eventually walk out of this season of recession and devastation to celebrate a time of renewed prosperity and solidarity.

That is probably one of the reasons this little song has been popular for decades. People have always experienced difficulties: earthquakes, floods, wars, recessions and pandemics. At least to me, this song is more than about creating a meme on TikTok. The little song symbolizes to me how much we have gone through and how much more we can expect to hope for if we keep our heads together and our hands busy in creating solutions.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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