People in general think of dazzling cherry blossoms as the representative spring flower. But scholars of the old preferred the restrained beauty and subtle scent of plum blossoms. Confucian scholars believed that championing fidelity even amid difficulties was their defining character and likened themselves to the hardy flower that bloomed in snow and cold. The subtle scent of plum blossoms gave them the nickname of the “scent of the gentleman.” It was understandable that Joseon-era scholars cherished and wanted to resemble plum blossoms. One such person was the esteemed Yi Hwang 이황, one of the most renowned Confucian philosophers of the Joseon period. He allegedly told his family at his death bed to water his favorite plum blossom pot. He even wrote a series of poems on the flower. Here is one of them.
I was walking in the garden by myself when I spotted the moon following me.
How many times did I walk around the plum blossoms?
I sat by the plum trees until late at night and forgot to go home,
Leaving the scent to seep into the clothes and its shadows to fill me up.
This poem describes how a scholar was enraptured by the plum blossom scent and kept awake until very late. Today’s first piece is titled “Love Is Also Plum Blossoms,” inspired by Gyeonggi-do folk song “Maehwaga 매화가” or “Song of Plum Blossoms.” Today’s rendition is sung by Music Factory Jamong.
Love Is Also Plum Blossoms/ Performed by Music Factory Jamong
When Yi Hwang was serving as the governor of Danyang 단양, a young female entertainer by the name of Duhyang두향 supposedly became a great admirer of his. He also cared deeply for the girl, but they had to part when he was assigned to another post in Punggi 풍기. The girl gave a pot of plum trees to the philosopher and he allegedly cherished the pot until his dying day. When he passed, Duhyang is said to have ended her own life in his mourning, the verity of which cannot be ascertained today. However, one thing is true. Yi Hwang loved plum blossoms and wrote many poems about it. The sentiment was shared by many in old Korea, inspiring numerous songs about plum blossoms. One was a poem-based song called “Maehwaga” or “Song of Plum Blossoms,” supposedly written by a gisaeng in Pyongyang named Maehwa. The woman compared herself to the old plum branches and wondered if she could blossom again. Here’s Lee Yun-jin singing “Maehwaga-Spring Returns” with a guitar and piri accompaniment.
Maehwaga – Spring Returns/ Sung by Lee Yun-jin
Korean scholars loved plum blossoms so much that they often embarked on a trip to see famous plum trees. But scholars were not the only ones enchanted by these delicate blossoms. Monks and trainees at Buddhist temples also adored them. Buddhist monks are said to have endured the harsh, lonely meditation in the winter with the hope of smelling the elegant aroma of plum blossoms in the early spring. This may be why Buddhist temples are home to many iconic plum trees. For instance, Geumdunsa 금둔사 Temple in Jeollanam-do Province is home to a plum tree that blooms in the middle January or lunar December. The plum blossoms that flower in the depth of winter are called “napmae 납매” or “seoljungmae 설중매,” meaning the plum blossoms that bloom in the snow. There are several centuries-old plum trees in Seonamsa 선암사 Temple, which gained fame after they were featured in movie “Chwihwaseon 취화선.” And then Hwaeomsa Temple is home to a plum tree that bears red blossoms instead of typical light pink or white ones. The red blossoms are so dark that they appear almost black, earning them the nickname “Black Plum Blossoms.” A plum tree in Baegyangsa 백양사 Temple named Gobulmae 고불매 is so fragrant that the single tree is said to perfume the entire temple ground. Today’s last piece is “The Promise Is” sung by Park Min-hee.
The Promise Is/ Sung by Park Min-hee