by Abellio

Bangkok, 12 February 2016

I saw my doctor recently, for my annual check-up. After all the tests and probings were over, we sat down and talked over the results. Then came the awful verdict: I had to cut out coffee, tea, Coke, anything with caffeine in it. So here I am, sitting at the breakfast table, mournfully sipping water. My body has let me down. It is getting old. It needs maintenance but there are no spare parts. As T.S. Elliot’s Alfred J. Prufrock lamented, “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”. The grave yawns ahead of me!

Sitting here, bathed in an existential funk, I am reminded of another poet, Chinese this time, by the name of Tao Yuanming, who wrote this poem in the year 409 AD, during the Double Ninth Festival, so called because it falls on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month.

Slowly, slowly,
the autumn draws to its close.
Cruelly cold
the wind congeals the dew.
Vines and grasses
will not be green again—
The trees in my garden
are withering forlorn.
The pure air
is cleansed of lingering lees
And mysteriously,
Heaven’s realms are high.
Nothing is left
of the spent cicada’s song,
A flock of geese
goes crying down the sky.
The myriad transformations
unravel one another.
And human life
how should it not be hard?
From ancient times
there was none but had to die,
Remembering this
scorches my very heart.
What is there I can do
to assuage this mood?
Only enjoy myself
drinking my unstrained wine.
I do not know
about a thousand years,
Rather let me make
this morning last forever

The wine Tao Yuanming is alluding to is chrysanthemum wine, made by blending chrysanthemum – flower, leaves, stalks and all – with millet and letting it ferment. It was made during the Double Ninth Festival, with chrysanthemums picked that day. It was left to sit for a whole year, to be drunk at the next Double Ninth Festival.

“Chrysanthemum” in Chinese is pronounced “ju”, which sounds similar to the word for “long”, “jiu”. By that strange Chinese habit of giving deep meaning to homophony, the chrysanthemum was therefore believed to be imbued with the spirit of longevity, and thus – through an animistic belief in sympathetic magic – its consumption would help the consumer live longer. It helped that the chrysanthemum is a flower of the autumn, a flower which blooms when other flowers are withering. Surely such a flower, which defies the dying of nature all around it, must be imbued with the spirit of longevity? “Chrysanthemum” also sounds like the number “nine”, “jiu”, therefore it seemed divinely ordained that this flower should play a central role in the Double Ninth Festival. Drinking chrysanthemum wine at the Festival was an affirmation that, even as winter started to close in, Death did not yet have us in its grip.

I suppose, then, that at this moment when my body betrays me, when I have doubts about my own longevity, I should drink long drafts of chrysanthemum wine. But even in my current brown mood, I don’t think I could drink this brew. It sounds distinctly unappetizing. I shall plump instead for chrysanthemum tea, which can happily take the place of my coffee and tea. In a coincidence which I’m sure the Chinese would find significant, my wife and I recently bought – in Bangkok’s Chinatown – a packet of dried chrysanthemum flowers: not the big, showy chrysanthemums you see in flowerbeds, but small, almost daisy-like, flowers.
I will use these flowers to prepare myself infusions of a very delicate taste.
And I will peer deep into my cup, drowning my existential sorrows in that lovely pale yellow liquid. Who knows? Maybe the Chinese were right, maybe I will live longer, and, like Tao Yuanming, “I will pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge / And gaze afar towards the southern mountains.”

Or maybe, as my wife and daughter have very sensibly suggested, I should start drinking decaffeinated coffee and tea instead …

Dried chrysanthemum flowers: http://www.botanicalspirit.com/chrysanthemum-flowers
Chrysanthemum tea: http://kaleidoscope.cultural-china.com/en/8Kaleidoscope2197.html
Tao Yuanming: https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/T%27ao_Ch%27ien