Mandarin Love: The Three Friends of Winter (Sui Han San You)

It’s January, a time of bitter cold from the Arctic north and the kind of dull gray monochromatic skies that do little to lift winter spirits. For much of my life, I’ve struggled with this month, which falls just after the magic of Christmas. We’re expected to lean forward, look ahead and think of all the bright new things awaiting us in the new year — and meanwhile I’m still trying to shake off that bout of flu that gripped me Christmas day. (Talk about really bad timing.)

But there is one thing that does make the winter more bearable, something I’ve learned through my husband in the past few years — the three “friends” of winter (岁寒三友; suì hán sān yǒu)

Who are these three friends? Pine trees (松; sōng), bamboo (竹; zhú), and plum blossoms (梅; méi). In Chinese, they’re often said together in one phrase. (松竹梅; sōng zhú méi)

They’re our “friends” in the winter because they retain a certain vitality that’s easily forgotten in this most trying season of the year.

Pine trees are evergreen throughout the year, even during these chilly January days.

Bamboo, too, remains green and upright despite the blustery weather.

Most impressive of all is the plum blossom, which welcomes the most frigid days of winter with its beautiful flowers. I have marveled at these flowers on snowy January days, their existence defying what we usually think of nature and when flowers should bloom.

Sometimes, the worst of winter can overwhelm us – and not always in a positive way. It helps to remember these natural symbols, which prove that green and goodness can thrive even in frozen weather. They can inspire us to persevere in our own lives, to let our own light shine brightly through this dark season.

If you have the chance, take a walk sometime and see if you can visit one of these three “friends” of winter.

Happy 2018 to everyone!

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7 Replies to “Mandarin Love: The Three Friends of Winter (Sui Han San You)”

  1. Happy new year, Jocelyn! For me, the three friends of winter are the hot water bottle, the electric blanket and the long underwear. Haha!

    Regarding plants, I noticed there are some other things that bloom in the winter, as in our compound there are flowers all year round! The magnolia and apricot trees downstairs are starting to bud! They will have flowers within a month I think.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Marta! Boy, your mention of water bottles, electric blankets and long underwear reminds me of the chilly indoors I used to deal with in Hangzhou…and I can totally understand why they would be your winter friends!

      That is so cool the magnolia and apricot trees are budding. It’s interesting how in more southern parts of China the “Spring Festival” — aka Chinese New Year — really does seem to coincide with the start of spring. But that will definitely not be the case for me here in Beijing, as I’m certain we’ll be experiencing that cold weather for a bit longer.

  2. Happy New Year Jocelyn and Jun! I wish that Canada had the plum blossom, it is quite beautiful to look at, maybe I could transplant the seed here and let them bloom? 😉 I love Jun’s outlook on how the ‘three’ friends can make someone feel better about the season!

    Hope you are feeling better! I think in January, the thing that we look forward to is Chinese New Year, as we know it is coming up either in January or February. I know in Canada it isn’t as big as it is in China, but, it is something that we think about planning at this time. How is Beijing so far? Talk soon!

    1. Thank you for the comment Maria! January is indeed a time to look forward to Chinese New Year, and it does give you something to look forward to during a season that otherwise feels bleak and dreary at times.

      I am not sure if plum blossoms can thrive in more northerly places, as they are native to the Yangtze River region. But hey, you can always try…or maybe have a bonsai version of one?

      Beijing is terrific, but I’ve been so busy I haven’t had much opportunity to really enjoy the city. Am hoping to see more of Beijing this month, though. It’s a beautiful winter, lots of blue skies, and nothing at all what I expected this season.

      1. I never thought of a bonsai version, such a great idea Jocelyn! 😉

        I’m glad that the winter hasn’t been too cold for you in Beijing, it’s freezing here in Canada, extreme cold weather alerts for weeks now.

        Looking forward to seeing pictures of your adventures! 🙂 Hope the job is going well!

  3. Jocelyn,
    I want to thank you for “re-educating” me in regards to these “Three Friends”. As kids growing up, totally away from Chinese culture, my parents tried to instill in us some of our heritage. I vaguely remember their attempts in mentioning the deep poetic meaning of the “Three Friends”, but at our then young age we did not comprehend the beautiful symbolism behind the literal story. Thanks to you reintroduction, together with great illustration via those photos, I now fully appreciate the deep meaning of the “Three Friends” I know it ironic to be learning my heritage from a transplanted Caucasian American, but it is great that you are taking all the efforts to initiate the rest of us into the more sophisticated side of Chinese culture.

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