Autumn, wherever it is, always has something to recommend itself. In North China, however, it is particularly limpid, serene and melancholy. To enjoy its atmosphere to the full in the onetime capital, I have, therefore, made light of travelling a long distance from Hangzhou to Qingdao, and thence to Peiping.
There is of course autumn in the South too, but over there plants wither slowly, the air is moist, the sky pallid, and it is more often rainy than windy. While muddling along all by myself among the urban dwellers of Suzhou, Shanghai, Xiamen, Hong Kong or Guangzhou, I feel nothing but a little chill in the air, without ever relishing to my heart's content the flavour, colour, mood and style of the season. Unlike famous flowers which are most attractive when half opening, good wine which is most tempting when one is half drunk, autumn, however, is best appreciated in its entirety.
It is more than a decade since I last saw autumn in North. When I am in the South, the arrival of each autumn will put me in mind of Peiping's Tao Ran Ting with its reed catkins, Diao Yu Tai with its shady willow trees, Western Hills with their chirping insects, Yu Quan Shan Mountain on a moonlight evening and Tan Zhe Si with its reverberating bell. Suppose you put up in a humble rented house inside the bustling imperial city, you can, on getting up at dawn, sit in your courtyard sipping a cup of strong tea, leisurely watch the high azure skies and listen to pigeons circling overhead.
Saunter eastward under locust trees to closely observe streaks of sunlight filtering through their foliage, or quietly watch the trumpet-shaped blue flowers of morning glories climbing half way up a dilapidated wall, and an intense feeling of autumn will of itself well up inside you. As to morning glories, I like their blue or white flowers best, dark purple ones second best, and pink ones third best. It will be most desirable to have them set off by some tall thin grass planted underneath here and there.
Locust trees in the North, as a decorative embellishment of nature, also associate us with autumn. On getting up early in the morning, you will find the ground strewn all over with flower-like pistils fallen from locust trees. Quiet and smell-less, they feel tiny and soft underfoot.
After a street cleaner has done the sweeping under the shade of the trees, you will discover countless lines left by his broom in the dust, which look so fine and quiet that somehow a feeling of forlornness will begin to creep up on you. The same depth of implication is found in the ancient saying that a single fallen leaf from the wutong tree is more than enough to inform the world of autumn's presence.
The sporadic feeble chirping of cicadas is especially characteristic of autumn in the North. Due to the abundance of trees and the low altitude of dwellings in Peiping, cicadas are audible in every nook and cranny of the city. In the South, however, one cannot hear them unless in suburbs or hills. Because of their ubiquitous shrill noise, these insects in Peiping seem to be living off every household like crickets or mice.
As for autumn rains in the North, they also seem to differ from those in the South, being more appealing, more temperate.
A sudden gust of cool wind under the slaty sky, and raindrops will start pitter-pattering. Soon when the rain is over, the clouds begin gradually to roll towards the west and the sun comes out in the blue sky. Some idle townsfolk, wearing lined or unlined clothing made of thick cloth, will come out pipe in mouth and, loitering under a tree by the end of a bridge, exchange leisurely conversation with acquaintances with a slight touch of regret at the passing of time:
"Oh, real nice and cool—"
"Sure! Getting cooler with each autumn shower!"
Fruit trees in the North also make a wonderful sight in autumn. Take jujube tree for example. They grow everywhere—around the corner of a house, at the foot of a wall, by the side of a latrine or outside a kitchen door. It is at the height of autumn that jujubes, shaped like dates or pigeon eggs, make their appearance in a light yellowish-green amongst tiny elliptic leaves. By the time when they have turned ruddy and the leaves fallen, the north-westerly wind will begin to reign supreme and make a dusty world of the North. Only at the turn of July and August when jujubes, persimmons, grapes are 80-90 percent ripe will the North have the best of autumn—the golden days in a year.
Some literary critics say that Chinese literati, especially poets, are mostly disposed to be decadent, which accounts for predominance of Chinese works singing the praises of autumn. Well, the same is true of foreign poets, isn't it? I haven't read much of foreign poetry and prose, nor do I want to enumerate autumn-related poems and essays in foreign literature. But, if you browse through collected works of English, German, French or Italian poets, or various countries' anthologies of poetry or prose, you can always comes across a great many literary pieces eulogizing or lamenting autumn. Long pastoral poems or songs about the four seasons by renowned poets are mostly distinguished by beautiful moving lines on autumn. All that goes to show that all live creatures and sensitive humans alike are prone to the feeling of depth, remoteness, severity and bleakness.
Not only poets, even convicts in prison, I suppose, have deep sentiments in autumn in spite of themselves. Autumn treats all humans alike, regardless of nationality, race or class. However, judging from Chinese idiom qiushi (autumn scholar, meaning and aged scholar grieving over frustrations in his life) and frequent selection in textbooks of Ouyang Xiu's On the Autumn Sough and Su Dongpo's On the Red Cliff, Chinese men of letters seem to be particularly autumn-minded. But, to know the real flavour of autumn, especially China's autumn, one has to visit the North.
Autumn in the South also has its unique features, such as the moonlit Ershisi Bridge in Yangzhou, the flowing sea tide at the Qiantangjiang River, the mist-shrouded Putuo Mountain and lotuses at the Lizhiwan Bay. But they all lack strong colour and lingering flavour. Southern autumn is to Northern autumn what yellow rice wine is to kaoliang wine, congee to steamed buns, perches to crabs, yellow dogs to camels.
Autumn, I mean Northern autumn, if only it could be made to last forever! I would be more than willing to keep but one-third of my life-span and have two-thirds of it bartered for the prolonged stay of the season!