Autumn is always wonderful regardless of where it is. But autumn in the north is especially fresher, quieter and more desolate. I have traveled thousands of miles in a rush from Hangzhou to Qingdao and then from Qingdao to Peking. The only reason was to taste ‘the autumn’, its flavor in the ancient capital.
In the south, of course there is autumn too. However, vegetation there withers slow. With moist air and pale sky, it is often more rainy and less windy. One, always mixed in the crowds in Suzhou, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xiamen, Hong Kong or Guangzhou, lives a chaotic life and only feels a bit cool. It is never possible to fully appreciate the taste, color, context and gesture of the autumn. Autumn is not a brand flower, nor a mellow wine. The half-drunk altitude is inappropriate in the course of understanding the autumn.
I have not spent the autumn in the north for almost ten years. Every autumn in the south, I always thought of the aloe flowers of the TaoRan Pavilion, the elegant willows of the DiaoYu Platform, the singing insets in the Western Hills, the autumn moon of the Jade Springs and the bell rings of the Tanzhe Temple. In Peking, no matter whether you stay at home, go with the crowd in the Forbidden City or rent a shack, you’ll see the lofty and azure sky and hear the sound of pigeon-training under the sky when you get up to make a bowl of hot tea and sit in the yard in the morning. Under the shady locust trees, counting the traces of the sunbeams sifted through toward the east, or in the broken wall, facing silently the blue flowers of the trumpet-like morning glory, you will feel naturally the authentic autumn. Saying a morning glory, I thought blue or white one is the best, the purple one the second and then follows the pink one. It would be the best if there are a few sparse tapering and long autumn grasses growing on the base of the flowers to serve as a contrast.
Locust tree in the north is also a kind of embellishment and a reminder of autumn.Their fallen petals, somehow like but unlike flowers, fully cover the ground in the morning. Stepping on them even causes no sound or smell, only arouses a sense of super subtlety and tenderness. After the street cleaners sweep the streets shadowed by the trees, the streak traces left behind by the brooms in the dust looked soft and idle, also a bit lonely in sub-consciousness. The ancients said that one leaf of phoenix tree makes the autumn known to the world, a reverie almost evidenced by the depth of these things.
The fading and feeble chirping of cicadas is a specialty of the north. Trees grow everywhere in Peking. Houses are also lowly sprawled. So no matter where you are, you are able to hear their singings. In the south, you need to go into the countryside or up to the mountains to hear them. In Peking, the whinny of autumn cicadas is just simply the home insects like crickets and mice kept in every household.
Also there is raining in autumn, so odder, more flavored and more decent in the north than in the south.
Under the gloomy sky, suddenly comes a gust of cool wind. Rain is immediately scattered down. After this fit of raining, the clouds gradually roll away toward the west. The sky turns into blue and the sun shows off its face again. The urban idlers, wearing thick green unlined clothes or lined jackets and chewing tobacco pipes, stand on the bridge shadowed by the trees after rain.
When meeting acquaintances, they would greet each other in a slow and leisurely tone:
“Oh, it is really cool now—-” (the last word was pronounced in high pitch and dragged very long.)
“Isn’t it really? Coldness follows the autumn rain!”
When the Northerners speak, they are pretty like to layer words and make the tones of the words ups and downs. So the mispronounced rhyme sounds just alright.
The fruit trees of the Northerners in the autumn are also a spectacle too. The first one is the date tree, which grows up one by one in the corner, on the wall, besides the latrine and by the door of kitchens. The size of date is similar to that of olives and the pigeon eggs. When their color turns yellowish and greenish amid the fine oval leaves, it is just the heyday of autumn. After the leaves fall off and the dates turn red, the northwest wind is coming. The north then is a world of dust. At the junction of July and August when the dates, persimmons and grapes almost ripen, it is the best days of autumn in the north and the only golden days of the year.
Some critics say that Chinese literati, especially poets, are all tinted with a very strong color of decadence. So in Chinese poetry, the words in praise of the autumn are particularly abundant. But why the foreign poets are an exception? I have not read a lot foreign poetry, neither do I want to build up an account to compile collections of poems and proses on autumn. But if you go over the anthologies of English, French, German and Italian poets or poets from any other nationality, you will always see many praises and laments about autumn. In the lengthy pastoral poetry or poetry on all four seasons of the famous poets, the best written and most flavored parts are also about autumn. It is clearly seen that for the autumn, animals with sense and human beings with taste, always arouse the same especially deep, remote, harsh, desolate feelings. Not only a poet, but also a prisoner held in a dungeon, as to the fall, I think he will certainly feel an uncontrollable affectionateness. For human beings, why should autumn be different to them, why should autumn be distinct among different races and classes? But in Chinese, ‘Autumn scholar’is an idiom and ‘Autumn sound’ by Ouyang Xiu and ‘Ode to the Red Cliff’ by Susei are frequently seen in literature readings, etc., Chinese literati are felt in particularly deep relationship with the autumn. However, the deep meaning of autumn, especially the deep meaning of China’s autumn, can be felt fully only in the north.
Of course, the autumn in the south also has its uniqueness, such as the bright moon over the bridge of twenty-four arched holes, the autumn tides of the Qiantang River, the cool mist in the Putuo Mountain, the lingering lotus in the Lychee Bay, etc. Their hues are not strong, but their aftertastes last long. Compared to the north, the autumn in the south is just as the yellow wine versus the dry liquor, the rice porridge versus the steamed bun, the bass versus the big crab, and the yellow dogs versus the camels.
Autumn, the autumn in the north, if it can be retained, I would like to exchange for its one-third with the two-thirds of my lifetime.
August 1934, in Beiping.