“Smoking Mosquitoes, in Emulation of Mr Wanling’s style”  by Lu You
Mosquitoes, long rampant in the land of marshes, 
Seize the chance of the evening [to attack], indeed a source of annoyance.
Waving a fan to repel [them] in vain,
[I] burn silvery wormwood for a moment of relief.
A wiser choice is to show them some forbearance:
Driving them away, how narrow-minded am I!
Has anyone heard of a gentleman of generosity
Losing his composure for nasty bugs?
* From Lu You 陸游 (1125-1209), Jiannan shigao jiaozhu 劍南詩稿校注 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1985), collated and annotated by Qian Zhonglian 錢仲聯, 4217.
 Wanling 宛陵 is the style name of the Northern Song poet Mei Yaochen 梅堯臣 (courtesy name Shengyu 聖俞, 1002-1060), who wrote several poems on mosquitoes. As the poem by Lu You here is an ancient-style poem, it must have been written in emulation of Mei Yaochen’s “Juwen” 聚蚊 (Mosquito Swarms), to which Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 (1007-1072) also wrote a poetic response. For Mei Yaochen’s “Juwen”, see his Wanling ji 宛陵集: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=2717&page=94; see also a full English translation in Wilt Idema, Insects in Chinese Literature: A Study and Anthology (Amberst, New York: Cambria, 2019), 117-118. For Ouyang Xiu’s response to Mei Yaochen’s poem, see his Ouyang Wenzhonggong ji 歐陽文忠公集: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=78253&page=90.  Red characters rhyme.  The poem is dated in the autumn of 1208, when Lu You was in Shanyin 山陰 (modern Shaoxing, Zhejiang); see Qian Zhonglian’s annotation in Lu You, Jiannan shigao jiaozhu, 4217.
As I’m dipping into the world of incense, I also reviewed a familiar occasion in which incense is a protagonist: repelling mosquitoes. Evolving from incense coils, tablets to odour-free liquid vaporisers, mosquito repellents have long been a household essential for my family. Wondering what kind of incense had been used in pre-modern times, I had quite a lot of fun reading poems by historical mosquito magnets. Although many poets spared no effort to vent their hatred for the tiny, six-legged beasts that swarm around thunderously, they rarely went into the detail of what they did about them. Waving them away by hand, with a fan or a fly whisk, at most. But the poets more often cursed them, called for cooler autumn days, and hoped that wind, spiders and mantises would help.
The poem by Lu You above represents one of the rare cases where the poet doesn’t just fantasise but employs a concrete method: burning ai 艾, or silvery wormwood / Chinese mugwort (Artemisia argyi). It’s a tradition of the Dragon Boat Festival to hang a bunch of calamus and silvery wormwood in order to exorcise the evils, although I don’t recall my family ever doing so. Silvery wormwood is also appreciated for its medical value and used for making a regional delicacy called aibaba 艾粑粑 (sweet glutinous rice dumplings with silvery wormwood juice).
As we are having 30 degrees in the south now, mosquitoes again become a pressing issue. Now that I learned about a new method, it was natural for me to integrate it into my recent experiments with incense. Therefore, I got myself a bag of bullet-shaped backflow incense, or daoliu xiang 倒流香, made from silvery wormwood and mountain-shaped burners designed for backflow incense.
After I lit the bullet, smoke soon flowed into a waterfall and filled the space between the “mountain peaks” like mist. When I moved closer to observe the spectacle, the mist vanished because of my breath, as if a dream of immortals was shattered by a reckless intruder from reality. But even the vanishing of the dream was enchanting, and within a second the spectacle re-started all over again until the incense bullet was burnt out after some ten minutes.
Of course, I knew this was to be expected when I placed the order, but seeing it happening before my very eyes just gave another level of satisfaction. I was too absorbed in the view to care about its scent, which turned out to be rather intense, and would not leave my bedroom until the following day.
And then I still had the mosquito thing. Guess what? For once, mosquitoes attacked my mother instead of me that evening! In contrast to my excitement, my mother was very calm. She was actually accustomed to the idea of repelling mosquitoes by burning silvery wormwood – that was exactly what her family did in the countryside when she was a child. Born and raised in town, I had to learn about this from poems written almost a millennium ago.
Then I also wondered what exactly Lu You burnt: fresh silvery wormwood plants or dried ones? It seems that the burning of fresh plants is much less effective than the dried ones or incense. We have records of unsuccessful attempts. An earlier poet He Zhu 賀鑄 (1052-1125), for instance, also tried silvery wormwood, and he got nothing but heat, smoke, and a whole family coughing. The mosquitoes just came back as soon as the smoke diminished. After a whole night’s struggle and scratching, He Zhu poured his fury into his “Zuwen” 詛蚊 (Cursing Mosquitoes).
As Lu You did have “a moment of relief”, I suppose he had burnt the silvery wormwood in the right way. In the second half of his poem, he seems to be upset by not being able to live up to the gentlemanly code of conduct. But really I think there were enough gentlemen who did lose their composure to give Lu You some comfort. Most people won’t disagree that Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 (1007-1072) was a widely respected gentleman. He said a trivial thing like the mosquito was not worth sullying any writing materials for and then continued to write nearly seventy lines about it under the unapologetic title “Loathing Mosquitoes” (Zengwen 憎蚊). As Lu You named his poem “Smoking Mosquitoes” instead of “Sparing Mosquitoes”, I imagine that he had the leisure to write this poem while thinking about a gentleman’s composure precisely because the burning silvery wormwood was giving him a precious, undisturbed night.
 For translations of a selection of Chinese literary texts about mosquitoes, see Olivia Milburn, “The Chinese Mosquito: A Literary Theme”, Sino-Platonic Papers 270 (2017): 1-50, and Idema, Insects in Chinese Literature, 114-120.  See He Zhu, Qinghu yilao shiji 慶湖遺老詩集: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=2360&page=75.  See Ouyang Xiu, Ouyang Wenzhonggong ji 歐陽文忠公集: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=78244&page=62; for an English translation, see Milburn, “The Chinese Mosquito: A Literary Theme”, Sino-Platonic Papers 270 (2017): 34-38.
The texts and images used on the website of Rachelle's Lab are either from the public domain (e.g. Wikipedia), databases with open data licences (e.g. Shuhua diancang ziliao jiansuo xitong 書畫典藏資料檢索系統, National Palace Museum, Taipei), online libraries that permit reasonable use (e.g. ctext.org), or original work created for this website.
Although fair use of the website for private non-profit purposes is permitted, please note that the website of Rachelle's Lab and its content (including but not limited to translations, blog posts, images, videos, etc.) are protected under international copyright law. If you want to republish, distribute, or make derivative work based on the website content, please contact me, the copyright owner, to get written permission first and make sure to link to the corresponding page when you use it.
*Read more about copyright and permission here.