We’re midway through the Jewish holiday of Sukkot – a harvest festival celebrated by building a hut (a ‘sukkah’) outdoors, and then dining, relaxing, and celebrating in it as much as possible over the course of a week. It’s a beautiful holiday, especially right on the heels of Rosh Hoshanah (the Jewish new year). The world has been created, and now we have to create something out of the world.
But Jews aren’t unique in celebrating a harvest festival at this time of the year – many cultures do the world over, including America, with Thanksgiving next month. And also, it turns out, China, which celebrates a Harvest Moon Festival on the same lunar calendar date (aligned with the same full moon) as Sukkot.
I’ve been (very slowly and painfully) learning some Chinese, and my tutor Michael Fu shared with me this week a pair of 5th Century Tang Dynasty poems linked to the festival. Traditionally, the Harvest Moon evokes reunion, as with the harvest, workers return home after months away in the fields.
Each poem is a 5×4 grid of characters, and Michael took the time to walk me through them literally, one by one. In that form, the lines are something like: “window light in-front-of through seeing,” so it took a bit of puzzling for me to extract English translations that Michael thumbed up as capturing the meaning and spirit.
The first was written anonymously, the second by Ching Dao Lee, a famous poet of the era, who wrote the below to her fiancé, a young captain in one of the era’s many wars:
Outside my window,
I see a bright light,
and wonder if it is frost on the ground.
Looking up, I see it is the full moon;
I bow my head, and think of home.
You are at the head of this great river,
and I am down where it reaches the sea.
I think of you day and night,
and though we cannot yet be together,
we may still drink from the river: the same water.