1000 kilometers north of Saigon lies Vietnam's old imperial capital of Hue. Famous for its Forbidden City set along the shimmering Perfume River, it was a place created while dreaming of China.
You all know that the word kara (and kuro) signifies "black" in Altaic languages like Japanese, Manchurian and Turkish. While in English, "black" doesn't perhaps conjure up the most promising images, this is not so in all other countries, and the Black Sea is no more black-- and no more "dark"-- than the Red Sea is red. For black merely signifies north, while red signifies south.
Closely associated with China's theory of the five elements, from the earliest of times four celestial beasts 四獣 have been associated with each of the cardinal directions: the tortoise (black warrior of the north 玄武): the white tiger of the west 白虎; the red phoenix of the south 朱雀 and the blue dragon of the east 青龍. These concepts (along with so many others) traveled East to Japan and west as faraway as Turkey. According to this cosmology, the Black Sea really just means the "northern sea" and the Red Sea the "southern sea." In Turkish, the Mediterranean is known as the White Sea (that is, the Western Sea).
It should also be noted that black, according to this ancient system, was considered the position of authority. The Imperial Palaces of China were always positioned in the north -- facing south.They sat, in fact, beneath the Northern Pole Star, which was associated with the color purple and abode of the Celestial Emperor. For this reason the Imperial Cities 紫禁城 of old Peking and Hue are called in Chinese "Forbidden Purple Cities" (that is, located in the place of authority-- the north-- under the Northern Pole Star).
You have to admit there is something very intriguing about imagining an Emperor sitting on a throne in a Palace located beneath where the heavenly emperor sits in sky above.
In Japanese, "kara" (using a different character-- the character for Tang 唐) has for almost 2000 years been used to refer to China, but the concept (kara→black→north→authority) is actually believed to have been of Mongolian or Turkish origin (which is why it perhaps spread so far West into Turkey).
In Vietnam, in just the same way that the Chinese calendar was adopted so that today we would be entering the time of Small Snow 小雪 (no matter how hot is was in tropical Hue) so too did the Vietnamese emperors create their own Chinese Purple City.
And, in the most beautiful country in the world, there is the world's most beautiful city. And within that city there is an imperial palace, which perhaps rather than invoking feelings of splendor and awe like the other far grander one much further north, instead slowly seduces you with its poetry.
During my second week in Hue, I had heard that the lotus in the pond were so venerable in age and size that one could hear them open every morning with a great pop! Can you imagine-- to hear a flower blossom?
Closing at night, they ever so slightly sink back down into the muddy water. The moment the sun comes out, however, the lotus turn to face the sun and unfold in bloom. Everyday, she told me taking my hands, the flowers do this every day at sunrise so if you really want to hear it, you have to be there early, early in the morning.
So, I set out just before sunrise.
Still dark, I got on my borrowed bicycle-- an old forest green peugeout just like I had when I was in junior highschool. It was so nearly a match, in fact that I couldn't help but wonder if it really was my bicycle! Riding under avenues of flame trees, I arrived at the bridge to wait. But as the sky began to light up, thick mist lingering between the mountains, the sound of sampans puttering down the Perfume River first distracts and then instead of the lotus all I can hear are poems coming in waves off the water. Ca dao (漢越詞?)
The wind sighs through the flame tree
So far from my parents, I sometimes can't eat.
My hunger dulled by lonesome grief
I take up my bowl. I put it back down.
A tiny bird with red feathers
a tiny bird with black beak
drinks up the lotus pond day by day.
Perhaps I must leave you.
Evening before the king's pavilion:
people are sitting, fishing, sad and grieving
loving, in love, remembering waiting, watching.
Whose boat plies the river mists
--offering so many rowing songs
that move off these mountains and rivers, our nation
It was from this lotus pond, too, that every morning palace servants would wake at dawn to board small boats and collect the dew that had settled on the lotus flowers that night for the Emperor's tea.
More than the lotus, though and more than the ancient forbidden city and tombs of the old Emperors-- even more than the flame trees and poetry, it was an old American that I met briefly in a restaurant in Saigon that has haunted me. Perhaps like all the other surprisingly large number of Vietnam Vets I saw wandering around Saigon, he was there for the same reason. But it was his words that drove it home.
I can't forget
That was it. But somehow coming back to see the army of amputees and the malaria (there was an epidemic at that time), mountainsides completely bare of life.. somehow seeing this was a comfort to him.
Long Autumn nights.
Years later back in Japan, sitting once again in front of a lotus pond with my tea senpai, Nobue, we were eating onigiri and drinking tea and she was being highly amusing talking about some book she was reading, when this old woman sneaked up on us and without a word of greeting looked at us and said,
You know, you can hear them open in the morning. Pop!
All the ca dao poems were from John Balaban's "Poetry of Vietnam," in Smithsonian's Asian Art and Culture (winter 1994/Vietnam)