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Iris by Shen Zhou 沈周 (1427-1509), with a poem inscribed by Qianlong Emperor 乾隆

Album leaf by Shen Zhou 沈周 (1427-1509), with a poem inscribed by Qianlong Emperor 乾隆 (1711-1799, ruling 1735-1796).

Picture credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei

Iris, also known as hudiehua 蝴蝶花 (butterfly flower) in China













Lord Heaven originally confers no name on things;

Any name given is surely not their essence.

Trapped in that which is not the essence and fighting about right and wrong [2]

Often leads to the most absurd of faults.

Fluttering butterfly, fluttering flower;

[They] are one yet two, hence [the flower] is named buterfleoge.[3]

To state a flower is not a butterfly – could that really be wrong?

To say a butterfly is a flower – would that really be right?

Lissom are the blōstma,[4] svelte are the leaves:

With [their] dewy appearance and graceful air, for now [they] are insouciant.

The Official of the Lacquer Garden [5] and the Grandee of Song, [6]

Neither of whom is their concern, are indeed laughable. [7]

[1] Coloured characters rhyme. [2] It should be noted that the first three lines play with the word ben 本, evoking its multiple senses (the original, originally, nature, essence, root, etc.) and the debate about ming 名 (name) and shi 實 (substance) that concerned numerous thinkers throughout Chinese intellectual history. [3] Xu 胥 is an alternative old term for “butterfly;” see Zhuangzi: However, it is noteworthy that the passage of reference is disputed. Lu Deming 陸德明 (d. 630) in his celebrated Jingdian shiwen 經典釋文 (3 vols., Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1985), vol. 3, 1505 (2.24a) takes xu 胥 is an alternative term for “butterfly.” Nevertheless, later commentators often follow the prominent Qing scholar Yu Yue 俞樾 (1821-1907) who rejects Lu Deming’s reading and proposes to read xu as “soon” instead; see, for example, Guo Qingfan 郭慶藩 (1844-1896), Zhuangzi jishi 莊子集釋 (4 vols.; Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, [1961] 1982), vol. 3, 626, and Wang Shumin 王叔岷 (1914-2008), Zhuangzi jiaoquan 莊子校詮 (3 vols; Taipei: Academia Sinica, 1988), vol. 2, 662. In any case, the adverbial reading emerged about a century after this poem was composed. My use of the Old English word buterfleoge (butterfly) aims to reflect the archaism of the original text. [4] Hua 蘤 is an obsolete orthographic variant of hua 花 (flower). Here again, I use the Old English word for flower, blōstma, to reflect the choice of graph in the original. [5] The Official of the Lacquer Garden refers to Zhuanzi 莊子 (Master Zhuang).

[6] Song dafu 宋大夫 (Grandee of Song) here is not straightforward. It may refer to an anecdote about the grandee of Song Han Ping 韓憑 (fl. 4th century BCE), whose wife was seized by the king and thereupon committed suicide. The wife threw herself off a terrace. When the king's guards tried to grab her, wherever they touched turned into butterflies; see

[7] The implications of the last two lines are far from straighforward. Apart from the translation above, they could also be interpreted as:

The Official of the Lacquer Garden and the Grandee of Song,

Both oblivious of [this, possibly the beauty of the flower], are indeed laughable.

Moreover, given that Zhuangzi was a native of Song, it is worth considering reading Song dafu (Grandee of Song) in a wider sense, i.e. “a great man of Song.” And the last word juedao 絕倒 could indicate admiration instead of defiance. In that case, the penultimate line would suggest a contrast of two identities of Zhuangzi, harking back to his famous discourse about his butterfly dream, after which he couldn’t tell whether he had dreamed of being a butterfly, or whether in reality he was actually part of a butterfly’s dream; see Therefore, the last two lines may also read:

The Official of the Lacquer Garden and the Grandee of Song,

Oblivious of each other, inspire sheer admiration.

Album leaf by Giuseppe Castiglione 郎世寧 (1688-1766)

Ablum leaf by Chen Shu 陳書 (1660-1735)

Picture credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei

Irises in my garden


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