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Jade and jasmine, being, becoming

The Chinese word moli for ‘jasmine’ comes from Sanskrit mallika. Remember the song Moli Hua? Renuka Narayanan examines.

india Updated: Feb 21, 2009 00:45 IST
Renuka Narayanan

I read in Poonam Surie’s just-out book on China that Moli Hua (Jasmine Flowers) was her favourite Chinese song and she heard it in supermarkets, planes, all over the place. The world heard it too at the medal ceremony of the Beijing Olympics and in 2004 when the song was played by Beijing University students at the closing ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Athens. And earlier still, in the Puccini opera Turandot in the early 1920s, where the ‘Daughter of Turan’ (Turan Dukht, in Persian), a cold Chinese princess, puts one suitor, the Prince of Persia, to death but is nevertheless wooed by the smitten Prince of Tartary.

Moli Hua, a folksong composed under the last ruling dynasty of China (Manchu), was applied by the Italian opera composer as the theme tune for the princess (It’s odd, writing this, because for 14 years I had a classic opera poster of Turandot up in my house, that I’d picked up from the souvenir shop of the La Scala opera house in Milan).

Anyhow, this is what the Chinese song means:

Flower of jasmine,
oh so fair!
Budding and blooming here and there,
Pure and fragrant
all declare.
Let me take you with
tender care,
Your sweetness for
all to share...”

Surie tells us that the Chinese ‘moli’ comes from Sanskrit ‘mallika’ (and it becomes ‘malli’ in South India!).

We all know that there was a big influence that trekked and sailed from here to there but it’s so interesting to hear first hand, isn’t it? Makes you feel bad about all the wasted years when China and India could have been good friends and neighbours.

Says Surie, quoting the Ch’an doctrine of Buddhism, which sounds very familiar to Indians, “Buddhahood or the spiritual essence of things may be found in man, animal, plant, flower, mountain, stream and so on. The voice of Buddha may speak in the song of birds, the silence of mountains, the crashing of waterfalls, or the whisper of trees in the wind. (Recall how Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa first went into a trance when he saw cranes flying against the sky)…The Chinese landscape artist spent his time in silent meditation on aspects of nature, hoping to find the spiritual essence of things hidden under the cloak of outward forms…identifying himself with the object by intense concentration.” In India, dancers take up this theme as Being and Becoming, using metaphors like Shiva and Shakti for the state and the process.

Brings back my favourite Chinese story. A young man once went to a great jade expert and asked to be taught. The master accepted him and beguiled him everyday in conversation, always giving him a piece of jade to hold.

Months passed and the young man grew impatient. “When will you begin lessons, Teacher?” he asked respectfully, trying hard not to sound discourteous. “Tomorrow,” said the teacher gently. Next day, the teacher made him sit in the jasmine-scented garden and put a piece of stone as usual in his hand. Up jumped the young man, shouting, “This is not jade!”

Whether it’s India-China relations or our personal processes, the teaching stories do seem to point the way, that rather than ‘detachment’ it is ‘quiet, attentive connectedness’ that helps us ‘get there’.