The Symbolic Function of the Moon in Ancient Chinese Poetry

What do you usually do at night? Browse your phone? Play video games? Watch a movie? Party with your friends? Perhaps there is another other creative activity? In a world far removed from modern-day technologies, many ancient Chinese literary figures would look up to the skies on a clear night to draw admiration from the moon. Indeed, it was then considered a cherished pastime. With its bright, pure white colour and constantly changing shape, the moon has been the inspiration of many Chinese poets. They looked up to it as a multifaceted source of light and power, home and homeland, love and passion, rendering these sources into symbols within their poetry. In broad literary terms, the ‘moon’ in ancient Chinese poems is represented by the following symbols: a symbol of reunion, a symbol of longing, a symbol of love and beauty, and a symbol of purity. This article assesses these symbols, showcasing some of those legendary poems in which the moon plays such a dominant role: in poetic works by the ancient poets of Li Bai, Su Shi and Zhang Ruoxu.

First, the moon symbolizes reunion. The circle has a place in the traditional Chinese aesthetic system: it symbolizes completeness, perfection and wholeness. It is well known that the shape of the moon also changes periodically over time during the month, meaning there would be times when the moon shows its complete face and other times when it does not and where it is incomplete. Poetic instances exist where Chinese poets transposed the (in)complete face of the moon onto human togetherness or human absence. The full moon became reminiscent in ancient Chinese poetry as the representation of the reunion of people on the one hand; and on the other hand, the lack and absence of a moon was used as a metaphor for the separation of people.

Su Shi (苏轼1037-1101), also known as Su Dongpo (苏东坡), a prolific poet and essayist from the Song Dynasty (宋代 960-1279), provides a good example of the moon symbolizing reunion in his Water Melody (《水调歌头》). This poem was written in the ninth year of Xining, Emperor Shenzong of the Song Dynasty, that is, in AD 1076, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

水调歌头Shuǐ Diào Gē Tóu
Water Melody

苏轼 by Su Shi

明月几时有,Míng yuè jǐshí yǒu,
When did the bright moon first appear?
把酒问青天。bǎjiǔ wèn qīngtiān.
One raises a cup and asks the blue sky.
不知天上宫阙, Bù zhī tiān shàng gōng què,
One does not know, in the celestial palaces,
今夕是何年。jīnxī shì hé nián.
what year it is this evening.
我欲乘风归去,Wǒ yù chéng fēng guī qù,
I wish to ride the wind and return there,
又恐琼楼玉宇,yòu kǒng qióng lóu yùyǔ,
yet fear the jade towers;
高处不胜寒。gāo chù bùshèng hán.
in a high dwelling, one cannot bear the cold.
起舞弄清影,Qǐ wǔ nòng qīng yǐng,
Starting to dance with one's clear shadow –
何似在人间。hé sì zài rén jiān.
what else resembles the mortal world?
转朱阁, Zhuǎn zhū gé,
Revolving around the red pavilion,
低绮户,dī qǐ hù,
lowering to a silk-work door,
照无眠。zhào wú mián.
it shines upon the sleepless.
不应有恨,Bù yīng yǒu hèn,
It should not have resentment;
何事长向别时圆?hé shì cháng xiàng bié shí yuán?
why is it always full at times of separation?
人有悲欢离合,Rén yǒu bēihuānlíhé,
People have sorrows, joys, parting and reunions,
月有阴晴圆缺,Yuè yǒu yīn qíng yuán quē,
the moon is dark, bright, waxes or wanes,
此事古难全。cǐ shì gǔ nán quán.
these problems have been this way since ancient times.
但愿人长久,Dàn yuàn rén chángjiǔ,
Yet one hopes for longevity;
千里共婵娟。Qiān lǐ gòng chánjuān.

-Source: (Access: 13.10.2022)

-Copyright: Ziqiao Zang

This poem starts with the moon, ends with the moon, and uses the changes of the moon to reflect the feelings of the poet towards his younger brother, whom he had not seen for seven years. Moreover, the poem develops the reader’s imagination and thinking around the Mid-Autumn Festival, putting the joys and sorrows of the world into the philosophy of the universe and life. It expresses an expectation for reunion and happiness with the moon acting as a symbol conveying such values and aspirations.
Secondly, and perhaps somewhat conversely, the moon symbolizes the concept of missing something or somebody, including missing family and home. In ancient times when information-sharing was not so widespread and travel not so speedy, family members choosing to travel far and wide would soon be cut off from their home. Widening distances, both in terms of space and time, would inevitably lead to family members missing one another. The feeling of missing and being missed often becomes particularly apparent in the dead of night. But the moon can act to bridge that distance and divide: looking up at this celestial sphere in the sky may well evoke feelings that distant family members inhabit the same space and time. Although the physical space remains far and wide, the moon functions to bridge, even close the psychological distance between parted family members. This very theme is addressed in Chinese poet Li Bai (李白 701-762), active during the first half of the Tang Dynasty (唐朝 618-907). As one of the most famous men of arts and letters of his time, Li Bai wrote a poem entitled Thoughts on a Tranquil Night, in which the feeling of a poet living abroad is described; someone looking up at the moon and missing his hometown on an autumn night:

静夜思Jìng yè sī
Thoughts on a Tranquil Night

李白 By Li Bai

床前明月光, chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,
Before my bed a pool of light,
疑是地上霜。yí shì dì shàng shuāng.
Can it be hoar-frost on the ground?
举头望明月, Jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè,
Looking up, I find the moon bright;
低头思故乡。dī tóu sīgù xiāng.
Bowing, in homesickness, I’m drowned.

-Source: (Access: 13.10.2022)

-Copyright: Ziqiao Zang

Just as rock-a-bye baby is a nursery rhyme and lullaby of universal acclaim, Thoughts on a Tranquil Night is a poem that can be cited in China by young and old alike. The first two sentences describe the illusion that the poet creates over a moment in the specific setting of visiting a foreign country; the last two sentences deepen the poet’s homesickness by depicting the gestures of raising his head and lowering his head. ‘Looking up, I find the moon bright’ captures the reader’s imagination for its simplicity. First, it shows that the moon has brought the author closer to his hometown; and secondly, he projects his homesickness on the bright moon in the sky. The moon also symbolizes love and beauty. In the eyes of many literati, the moon is an object of great beauty, often compared favorably to the natural features of rivers, lakes, seas, and natural phenomena to form a picturesque image and to bring people great hope. It is not a coincidence that the moon reverberates in Chinese ancient visual arts and is taken up as a motif in paintings and portraits, depicting the moon for its beauty and as a natural phenomenon.

Zhang Ruoxu (张若虚 670-730), another great poet from the Tang Dynasty (唐朝 618-907), provides readers with a feeling of abundance in his Spring, River, Flower, Moon, Night (《春江花月夜》). Here is a short extract from it:

春江潮水连海平,Chūn jiāng cháo shuǐ lián hǎi píng,
The spring river swells, level with the sea
海上明月共潮升。hǎi shàng míng yuè gòng cháo shēng. 
Wherein, the moon rises with the tide, so fair.
潋滟随波千万里,Liàn yàn suí bō qiān wàn lǐ,
Her light follows waves for ten thousand li,
何处春江无月明?hé chù chūn jiāng wú yuè míng?
And the spring river is bright everywhere.

Zhang sets out by depicting the changing waterscape of the river and sea, drawing a direct parallel to the rising moon. As a powerful source of light, the moon equally functions to illuminate the river over a long distance, bringing it into focus on the spring night.

江畔何人初见月,jiāng pàn hé rén chū jiàn yuè,
Who riverside did the moon first espy?
江月何年初照人。jiāng yuè hé nián chū zhào rén.
To whom did the moon riverside first shed light?
人生代代无穷已,rén shēng dài dài wú qióng yǐ,
From older generations, new ones grow,
江月年年只相似。 jiāng yuè nián nián zhǐ xiāng sì.
And find the moon this year just like that last.

-Source: (Access: 11.10.2022)

-Copyright: Ziqiao Zang

These two sentences see the moon expressing sincere and fleeting feelings of parting, even delving into the philosophical. It expresses a profound sense of cosmic consciousness, creating a deep, narrow, and tranquil artistic realm describing a spring night with the moon hanging high in the quiet night sky, and the river surface reflecting the moon’s own reflection. Talk of the moon rising from the sea transmits ideas of love; and at the same time, it is connected with natural elements such as rivers, tides, and oceans in spring, ‘From older generations, new ones grow, And find the moon this year just like that last.’ – this sentence in the poem expresses the certainty that even though life is full of ups and downs, the moon is always a constant in the sky. Evoking the notion of moon as an eternal, constant force, it can be interpreted as encouraging people to put their difficulties into perspective and into wider context.

Fourth, the moon symbolizes purity and flawlessness devoid of pollution. The moon at night is particularly white and bright in the night sky. Poets often use this pure appearance to deduce the crystal-clear realm with natural purity corresponding to the purity of the human heart. Returning back to the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, who is renowned as a poet for his treatment of delicate and soft Chinese sentences, his Grief on the Jade Steps relates the autumn moon’s pure appearance with the natural purity of the young female protagonist:

玉阶怨Yù jiē yuàn
Grief on the Jade Steps

李白by Li Bai

玉阶生白露,Yù jiē shēng bái lù 
On the jade steps grows the dew white,
夜久侵罗袜。 yè jiǔ qīn luó wà.
Her silk socks are dampened at the night.
却下水精帘,Què xià shuǐ jīng lián,
Though rolling down the crystal blinds,
玲珑望秋月。 líng lóng wàng qiū yuè.
She still sees th' autumn moon so bright.

-Source: (Access: 12.10.2022)

This poem describes a woman’s loneliness and melancholy mood. The first two sentences describe the heroine’s speechlessness and independent jade steps, the dew is thick and soaked in the socks, but she is still waiting; the second two sentences describe the cold air, the heroine returns to the room and puts down the curtains, but is still staring at the autumn moon. The last two sentences use the exquisiteness of the moon to evoke the purity and sincerity of people. ‘玲珑’ is a typical Chinese word to describe the slim and soft shape of a young girl, also implying purity and sincerity. ‘却下水精帘’ is a rendering of the young girl’s behaviour: she is rolling the down the crystal blinds. Why does the poet use crystal blinds? He does so to equate the young girl to purity and being pure.

Purity also appears in the motif of water in ancient Chinese poetry. As early as 2,000 years ago, Lao Tzu (老子571 BC-471 BC) described water in the Tao Te Ching as: ‘上善若水,水利万物而不争.’ It means: The highest goodness is like water. Water washes and benefits all things and does not compete. And Qu Yuan, too, (屈原 343 BC-278 BC) described water in the Songs of Chu: ‘沧浪之水清兮,可以濯吾缨。沧浪之水浊兮,可以濯吾足.’ It means if the water of Canglang river is clean enough, it can wash my hat; and if the water of Canglang river is not clean enough, it can wash my feet. That is to say, whether the river is clean or not, the water can make me clean. At night, the beautiful scene formed by the moon reflecting onto water is also talked about by the ancient Chinese, something that manifests itself in Chinese idiomatic expression. The idiom ‘镜花水月’ describes the flower in the mirror and the moon in the water. It is used to illustrate people’s imagination of beautiful things that are out of reach. The idiom ‘近水楼台先得月’ shows that the moonlight can be seen first at the place near the water. People use the reflection of the moon in the water to shorten the distance to the distant moon in the night sky. It is this combination, then, of water and moon that feeds people’s imagination of purity and mystery. Even in the modern world, we are often intoxicated by the reflection in the water at night. This kind of emotion is the same as that of the Chinese poets thousands of years ago. Because of the natural connection between water and the moon, it also creates an emotional connection: pure water, against the white moon, it can be argued, provides the onlookers with that sense and feeling of purity.

The role of the moon in Chinese classical poetry goes further than the symbols presented in the poems of Li Bai, Su Shi and Zhang Ruoxu. The ancient Chinese literati captured the softness and fragility of the soul with keen insight and used implicit expressions to pin their deep feelings on the moon. It must be said that this represents a high degree of combination of wisdom and aesthetics. The beautiful artistic conception created by the literati with the moon has left us a vast space for our souls to revisit. Reading poems about the moon is not only a kind of spiritual enjoyment and enlightenment, but also lends itself as a kind of reassessment and reappraisal of traditional culture for people living a modern-day digital existence. Perhaps those engaged with their laptops, tablets and mobile phones looking either down and at their devices, should reconsider looking up instead to marvel at a natural phenomenon that was a source of inspiration and creative output for those ancient poets: the moon.

-Super moon (Copytight:www.