Orchid and Orange 1

感 遇 其

Orchid and Orange I, by Zhang Jiuling.

Would you think that a forest-hermit, well-content with the beauty of his home, would favor less a natural setting than a forest-orchid?

I will begin with the caveat that all translations are inherently suspect, including this one.

I begin with the title of the poem, Orchid and Orange.

Some one seems to have settled on this because of assonance and not for literary accuracy.  Zhang Jiuling’s title is 感 遇 其, which comes out something like, “the sense (feeling) of it”. Perhaps we have ended up with Orchid and Orange because of the comparison in the first two lines between two plants, one cultivated for its beauty, the other natural in its cultivation, but none the less beautiful. For that matter, the title could have been, Orchid and Osmanthus, a bit obscure, better yet, Cymbidium and Osmanthus, which makes it sound like two Greek words, which in fact they are, and points out why translations are suspect.

蘭 (Lán), the orchid, or precisely Cymbidium, a particular variety of orchid that is much prized and cultivated.

桂 (Gui), the Osmanthus, a bush or small tree, none variety of which has orange blossoms, but others are bright white.

Zhang Juiling

The Confucian Zhang Juiling (678–740) was a member of the Chinese literati class, with its hierarchy and system of advancements, primarily by examination, but also by means of court favor. For purposes of the poem the literati should be compared with the ascetic  Confucian hermits who were by definition loners living in the mountains and forests.

Zhang Juiling was for a period commandant of the city of Guilin, famous for its fragrant flowering Osmanthus and as a destination for Buddhist monks in pursuit of enlightenment.

The phonetic similarity of the Guilin and Juiling is a fitting coincidence.

Zhang was a blunt and out-spoken advisor to the emperor. When asked about what to do with the captured rebel An Lushan, Zhang favored execution. The emperor disagreed and eventually demoted Zhang from his post. A new rebellion ensued, the emperor fled to the mountains of Sichuan and passed the throne to his son. The new emperor remembering Zhang’s advice and warnings, honored him posthumously.


I admit that this Tang poem is beyond my ability to translate Chinese into English. The prevalent translation of Zhang Jiuling’s poem is:


Tender orchid-leaves in spring
And cinnamon-blossoms bright in autumn
Are as self-contained as life is,
Which conforms them to the seasons.
Yet why will you think that a forest-hermit,
Allured by sweet winds and contented with beauty,
Would no more ask to-be transplanted
Than Would any other natural flower?

Original Chinese.


 桂 Osmanthus and 蘭 Cymbidium

桂 (Gui), Osmanthus blooms in August, a bush or small tree that is cultivated in pots, and a symbol of love and romance. Osmanthus is also known as sweet osmanthus, sweet olive, tea olive. Its tiny bright flowers range in color from white to orange. Gui has a double meaning, referring also to expensive or valued, and to a clan of former rulers. There is a well-known city called Guilin which means “fragrant forest”, referring to its many fragrant Osmanthus trees. Guilin was a destination for Buddhist monks.

桂 華 秋 皎 潔

Osmanthus flower in autumn blooms bright

By contrast, 蘭 (Lán), Cymbidium is a large orchid that blossoms in spring in an array of colors. It is a symbol of the horticulturalist’s virtuosity and a dream to propagate.

蘭 葉 春 葳 蕤

Cymbidium verdant in spring is luxuriant with blooms

So what do I come up with?

A cymbidium, so luxuriant in spring as the
Sweet olive which blossoms bright in autumn
Each as self-contained as life,
Which keeps to its season.
So why do you think that a forest-hermit,
Seduced by sweet winds and surrounded with beauty,
Would wish to be displaced
More so than any other forest-flower?

Can one truly get a sense of the feeling of nature? Would one who enjoys the forest and nature want to be transplanted to the city?

Will I come back to this? Or will I enjoy the beauty of the blossom and leave it at that? Some thoughts are ineffable.

Could it be the thought is nothing more than this:

Would you think that a forest-hermit, well-content with the beauty of his home, would favor less a natural setting than a forest-orchid?

And for fun let’s say it in French:

 Pense-tu qu’un ermite de forêt, bien content de la beauté de sa gîte, favoriserait moins un cadre naturel qu’une orchidée de forêt?