In China, the willow is the symbol of spring, and of femininity. It is also the Buddhist symbol of meekness I am reminded of how, spring after spring, I thrill to the first sight of the willow. There is something about the chartreusey yellow of its coloring which bespeaks spring. New life. New hope. Freshness. It is a color unparalleled in nature at any other time of year, and just to look upon it is a tonic for the spirit.
It is not only the coloring of the willow which startles and delights when first sighted in the spring. It is also the great arcs of its swerving branches , its design. From the points of view of both design and color, the willow becomes a magnet as well as symbol of the season; while implications of its fragility, its transience, ingratiate the viewer even further.
On a recent trip to China, I noticed willows around the West Lake of Hangzhou , where the great artists of the Southern Sung (1127-1279) conceived their paintings. It was winter, but I could imagine their loveliness in spring, with nature-lovers strolling under them like sages.
In the accompanying painting from Southern Sung, "Sage Under Willow Tree," the sage seems to be delighting in the first blush of the willow's annual appearance. Lightly clad in spring array, he strolls beneath its bending branches, which seem wand-like in evanescence as they envelop him.
Why is he a wise man, a "sage," who strolls beneath the willow tree? I think he is a wise man because he defers to and highly regards the light, airy, almost ethereal color and conformation of the willow. And further, I think he is a "sage" because he glories in the environment of nature; and in so doing, he joins the philosophically elite. He is acting out the 5th century B.C. directive of the Buddha, who urged man to return to nature to find peace.
It is the ineffable delicacy of the conformation of the willow which leads to the Chinese interpretation of the willow as the Buddhist symbol of meekness, for , of all the trees, it is the willow that is the most gentle. The most unprepossessing. The most "meek."
In the attitude toward the willow, I think of the similarities between two cultures, American and Chinese.Not only is the springtime symbolism a feeling that both share. Both also share in its symbolism of femininity. How common, for example, is the description of a girl's "willowy" waist, a metaphor that is again proverbial in China.
Why should it be called the "weeping" willow, I wonder, when it is to many a source of joy? Exploring the subject, I find that "weeping" can mean bending and refer to the physical posture of the falling branches.
But then I wonder if the willow might not also be emotionally weeping -- sorrowful over a segment of straying humanity, just as the Buddha was, so very long ago?