”Summer afternoon－summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language,” quipped US novelist Henry James (1843-1916).
On Monday, summer officially begins, and－brace yourself－the days begin getting shorter. Yes, the beginning of the balmy season and the transition of students worldwide from third grade to fourth－or sophomore to junior－is launched with solar photons becoming more parsimonious for the next six months.
It is estimated that around five years ago, China became a majority urban population for the first time in five millennia. So one might well wonder if the annual cycles of the sun and implications for planting and harvesting really matter to most of the urbanites reading this piece.
After all, summer solstice－the beginning of summer－was in ancient times associated with birth, growth, renewal and fertility. Celebrations were therefore intended, implicitly perhaps, to gather all the villagers for feasting and frivolity, with the thinking being that the passions of the youth might be productively channeled into procreation (what with being cooped up for months), and if things worked out among the willing celebrants, around nine months later, the results of partners’ labor would lead to labor pains and, voila! New members of the society in question. The timing was impeccable for humanity as the helpless infants had a much higher likelihood of survival being born in the April-May period when the ice was melted and the hunting and gathering were good.
Now that the cultural background of the day itself in ancient temperate climes has been mentioned, we don’t need to be stuck, mindset wise, on a Three Kingdoms (220-280) beet farm to appreciate the change of the seasons.
After all, long winters spent pent up indoors－exacerbated by the COVID-19 self-quarantining phenomenon－have led to cabin fever in a few cases. The dictionary defines cabin fever as “extreme irritability and restlessness from living in isolation or a confined indoor area for a prolonged time”.
I think that accurately defines what a large chunk of humanity has been up to for the last several months. Though I doubt none of our esteemed readership went Jack Torrance at the Overlook (“What are we going to do about Danny?”), many of you are no doubt overdue to take off your shoes, smell the flowers and sprint across grassy lawns or sandy beaches.
Li Bai (701-762), aka China’s Shakespeare, Shelley and Wordsworth wrapped up in one wordsmith, wrote in A Summer Day in the Mountains:”Too lazy to wave my fan of white plumes, Rather, go naked, underneath the greenwood trees.”
We can all experience the poet’s carefree devil-may-care attitude to the freedom and opportunity of an early summer day, though I wouldn’t recommend his wardrobe choices given the particulars of modern social norms.
So be of good cheer, head to the tri-lakes of Beijing and circumambulate Houhai, rent a boat, bus out to Badaling, and let your hair down. And if by the time the longest day of the year comes around, and COVID-19 protocols are relaxed in certain areas of the capital, lower that mask when safe and deeply breathe in the warm summer air.
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A. Thomas Pasek