Reaching Out to the Realm of Unconsciousness

Goong / Princess Hours

« Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point : on le sait en mille choses. » (“The heart has reasons which reason knows nothing of. We know it in a thousand things.”)

– Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Modern civilizations often pride themselves on rationality and spirit of free enterprise. These ideals, however, were thrown into doubt with the conclusion of the First World War. Blaming the deadly global conflict on, among other things, excessive rational thought and capitalist values, artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers voiced their protest through Dadaism, a cultural movement that embraced irrationality and disorder. Abstract artist Jean Arp, for instance, dropped paper shapes randomly on a background and glued them on the spots they landed on. Others drew up elaborate diagrams crammed full of gears, pistons, levers, pulleys and dials that explained nothing. Poets like Hugo Ball wrote sound poems (e.g. “gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori […]”) that rejected language conventions and showcased pure sounds possessing only their own primal meanings. To the Dadaists, they were merely replacing the “logical nonsense” prevailing in Western societies with “illogical nonsense,” engaging in antics no more absurd than the war.

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Prince Yinzhen (4th Prince) Imagining Princess Minmin as Ruoxi in the Farewell Dance Ruoxi choreographed for Prince Yinxiang (13th Prince) and Princess Minmin in Scarlet Heart (Bu Bu Jing Xin)

Happiness, it is said, is the ultimate object of love. A person in love experiences or tries to bring himself and/or the other party pleasure, whether this is achieved through care-taking, physical gestures, moral support or imbuing life with additional hues of meaning. What if, however, the same or even greater happiness can be obtained in situations devoid of love?

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The Invisible Path to Liberty

Misaeng (2014 Korean Drama) - Last Scene

Social institutions (i.e. general mechanisms of society and patterns of behavior it supports) can trap individuals in predefined, ill-fitting modes of economic undertakings, relationships and conduct even as they establish order and preserve cherished values. In his early 19th century short stories collection Call to Arms, Chinese literary icon Lu Xun criticized the backward and “cannibalistic” practices of the oppressive, feudalistic system present in China at the time. “Hometown,” a semi-autobiographical narrative, was one of those satirical pieces that highlighted the plight of people marginalized by the system.

As the narrator, Xun, settled back at his ancestral home one desolate winter after spending the past twenty years away from it, he reminisced about a friend from his teenage days, Runtu. The son of a temporary odd-job laborer in his household, Runtu would regale him with descriptions of colorful seashells, jumping fish and fierce badger-like wild creatures at his seaside farm—stuff friends in the latter’s usual social circle did not know. As Xun noted trenchantly, while Runtu was at the seaside, he and his friends could only see the four-sided sky framed by the walls of their courtyards. With the revival of these memories, the man finally relished once more the beauty of his hometown. A surreal image of Runtu flashed across middle-aged Xun’s mind: a warrior-like pubescent charged at an exotic beast eyeing his crops with a pitchfork in a sand field while a golden orb hung above him in the deep blue sky. The beast, however, twisted its body and escaped under his legs.

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Romance of the Blue Bird and Plum Blossoms

Sadaham's Gift in The Great Queen Seondeok

Blue birds symbolize uplifting sentiments such as happiness, faith and guardianship in folktales and modern narratives around the world. On the flip side, some storytellers have come to depict the birds, and the spiritual goods they promise, as elusive and even nowhere to be found in the material world, to the extent that people perpetually dissatisfied with their current lives are now characterized as suffering from a “blue bird syndrome” in some parts of the world. Back in 6th century Silla, one general fought his most uphill battle not against rival armies but in the conquest for his own blue bird.

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Gymnopédie No. 1

Cantabile Tomorrow (Also known as Naeil's Cantabile)

19th century French author J.P. Contamine de Latour once penned a poem entitled “Les Antiques” (i.e. “The Ancients”), which included the following lines:

Oblique et coupant l’ombre un torrent éclatant
Ruisselait en flots d’or sur la dalle polie
Où les atomes d’ambre au feu se miroitant
Mêlaient leur sarabande à la gymnopédie


Cutting sidelong through the shadows, a brilliant torrent,
Flowing in waves of gold over the polished flagstone,
Where the atoms of amber shimmering in the fire
Mixed their sarabande with the gymnopaedia.

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The Maiden Under the Apple Tree

First Love    

by Tōson Shimazaki in Wakanashū (lit. Anthology of Young Herbs)

初恋      (島崎藤村 『若菜集』)

©gravity_grave, with modifications made under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

© gravity_grave, shared under the permission of CC BY-NC-SA 2.0





When I saw you under the apple tree

with your hair combed up for the first time,

I thought you were a ravishing flower

from the flower comb in front of your head.

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Liszt’s Liebesträume No. 3

Liebestraum No. 3 by Franz Liszt (Featured in Cantabile Tomorrow)

How fitting it was that Nae-il, the ebullient heroine of Cantabile Tomorrow, was introduced to the melody of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s Liebesträume No. 3! The piece starts with the soft and soothing A-flat major, a cool evening breeze gently blowing across a lake. The tune then takes on a more serious tone, the evening scene imbued with colors of the finest hues. The climax builds up, the key unexpectedly switches to a glorious B major, octave jumps come forth. A couple of times, the melody is interrupted by cadenzas that give glimpses of stars twinkling in the night sky and on the lake surface, so mesmerizing yet so far away, before gales stir up the water. Finally, the atmosphere relaxes, the winds calm down, and the work ends in sweet harmony. Set to the music is German writer Ferdinand Freiligrath’s poem “O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst! (O love, so long as you can!),” which, as its title suggests, extols the virtue of carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day”) in love.

Yet a subtle thread of melancholy runs through the piano solo. This sentiment is more apparent in the full poem, which reads:


Original Text:

"O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst!"

O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst!
O lieb, so lang du lieben magst!
Die Stunde kommt, die Stunde kommt,
Wo du an Gräbern stehst und klagst!

Und sorge, daß dein Herze glüht
Und Liebe hegt und Liebe trägt,
So lang ihm noch ein ander Herz
In Liebe warm entgegen schlägt.

Und wer dir seine Brust erschließt,
O tu ihm, was du kannst, zulieb!
Und mach ihm jede Stunde froh,
Und mach ihm keine Stunde trüb.

Und hüte deine Zunge wohl,
Bald ist ein böses Wort gesagt!
O Gott, es war nicht bös gemeint, -
Der Andre aber geht und klagt.

O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst!
O lieb, so lang du lieben magst!
Die Stunde kommt, die Stunde kommt,
Wo du an Gräbern stehst und klagst!

Dann kniest du nieder an der Gruft,
Und birgst die Augen, trüb und naß
- sie sehn den Andern nimmermehr -
In's lange, feuchte Kirchhofsgras.

Und sprichst: O schau auf mich herab
Der hier an deinem Grabe weint!
Vergib, daß ich gekränkt dich hab!
O Gott, es war nicht bös gemeint!

Er aber sieht und hört dich nicht,
Kommt nicht, daß du ihn froh umfängst;
Der Mund, der oft dich küßte, spricht
Nie wieder: ich vergab dir längst!

Er that's, vergab dir lange schon,
Doch manche heiße Träne fiel
Um dich und um dein herbes Wort -
Doch still - er ruht, er ist am Ziel!

O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst!
O lieb, so lang du lieben magst!
Die Stunde kommt, die Stunde kommt,
wo du an Gräbern stehst und klagst!
English Translation:
"O love, so long as you can!"
O love, so long as you can!
O love, so long as you may!
The hour comes, the hour comes,
When you will stand by the grave and weep!

Be sure that your heart with ardour glows,
Is full of love and cherishes love,
As long as one other heart
Beats with yours in tender love!

If anyone opens his heart to you,
Show him kindness whenever you can!
And make his every hour happy, 
And never give him one hour of sadness.

And guard well your tongue!
A cruel word is quickly said.
Oh God, it was not meant to hurt, - 
But the other one departs in grief.

O love, so long as you can!
O love, so long as you may!
The hour comes, the hour comes,
When you will stand by the grave and weep!

Then you will kneel beside the grave
And your eyes will be moist with sorrow,
- never will you see the beloved again -
In the graveyard's long, wet grass.

You will say: O look at me from below,
I who cry here beside your grave!
Forgive me that I slighted you!
O God, it was not meant to hurt!

Yet he neither sees nor hears you,
The dear one lies beyond your comfort;
The lips that kissed you so often can
no longer say: I forgave you long ago!

And forgive you he did,
But tears he would profusely shed,
Over you and on your scathing word -
Hush now! - he rests, he is part of the past.

O love, so long as you can!
O love, so long as you may!
The hour comes, the hour comes,
When you will stand by the grave and weep!


(Credit for the first stanza belongs to an unidentified translator, while the second to fourth stanzas have been reproduced from The Ivory Classics Foundation‘s booklet with the very kind permission of its director, Mr. Michael Davis. More classical piano works can be browsed and collected here.)

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A Handshake in Thought

Flower Boys Next Door

There are many ways a piece of artwork may exude its beauty: an inviting stretch of sand glistening with wild colors seen only in dreams, a frozen moment in an ethereal Victorian ballet, a petal so real a child cannot help reaching out her small hand to feel it. There are many ways dramas may hold viewers spellbound: a peck on the lips that makes one want to fall in love all over again, a sweet ballad that chases away the summer heat, a heart-pounding flight over dizzying cliffs, bottomless oceans and into the clouds of possibilities. Yet one of the most beautiful and emotional aspects of the arts is often invisible and soundless in the final products.

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The Lady and the Peonies

折花行(절화행) – 이규보 (李奎報)


牡丹含露眞珠顆 (목단함로진주과)

美人折得窓前過 (미인절득창전과)

含笑問檀郞 (함소문단랑)

花强妾貌强 (화강첩모강)


檀郞故相戱 (단랑고상희)

强道花枝好 (강도화지호)


美人妬花勝 (미인투화승)

踏破花枝道 (답파화지도)

花若勝於妾 (화약승어첩)

今宵花同宿 (금소화동숙)


In this lighthearted banter depicted in another poem credited to Yi Kyu-Bo (1168-1241), a beautiful lady passes by a window looking out to peonies adorned with pearl-like dew drops. With a sweet smile, she asks her husband which is prettier: she or the flowers? Intent on teasing her, her husband proclaims that the peonies are lovelier. In a huff, the lady stomps on the flowers and declares, “Since the flowers are prettier than me, thou shalt sleep with them tonight!”

Perhaps a testament to the popularity of the saccharine scene portrayed, variations of the exchange can be found in Chinese poetry. In one version by Song dynasty writer Zhang Xian (990-1078), which predated Lee’s work, the wording was largely identical but the ending had the wife quipping, “Can the flowers possibly hold a conversation with you?” Flamboyant Ming dynasty poet, Tang Bohu (1470-1524), however, did not sound so sure:

妒花歌 – 唐寅

昨夜海棠初着雨,数朵轻盈娇欲语。 佳人晓起出兰房,折来对镜比红妆。 问郎花好奴颜好 ,郎道不如花窈窕。 佳人见语发娇嗔,不信死花胜活人。 将花揉碎掷郎前,请郎今夜伴花眠。

Translation: Freshly showered with rain the night before, the delicate begonias appear as if they are longing to speak. A beauty wakes up from her room and plucks some to compare with herself in the mirror. She asks her husband to choose the fairer one between her and the begonias. He, in reply, remarks that she pales in comparison to the blossoms. Miffed, the lady retorts that dead flowers cannot plausibly hold a candle to a living person. She crushes the begonias, throws them to her husband and teases him, “Well, then, sleep with them tonight.”

Still, Tang was merely deploying the literary devices of similes and personification. Neither he nor his counterparts in the other eras or lands truly considered any of the flowers potential conversation partners or bed companions. In recent times though, Dutch artist Theo Jansen and science writer Ferris Jabr might have held a different view. Jansen thought of the mobile giant contraptions he fashioned out of plastic tubes, wood and sails as alive even though they were propelled by wind and had no mind of their own or any semblance of reproduction ability. Jabr, in partial defense of Jansen, argued that life is not an intractable reality, but rather, an idea conjured up by Man as a (often) useful division of things. In the sociology of science, we term this phenomenon as “framing” and assert that, far from being absolute truths, many scientific concepts depend on the criteria employed for their definitions and implicit values influencing the selection of these criteria. It follows then that there may be many more valid ways of perceiving the actual world than those we are used to. Thus, we can envisage the blooms whispering to a lover without moving a lip or saying an actual word, and snuggling with him in spite of their inability to offer a physical embrace.

For all we know, some among us may attest that the peonies were tittering at the romantic exchange. Literally.


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The Moonlight in the Well

山夕詠井中月 (산석영정중월) – 이규보(李奎報)Moonlight in the Well Poem by Yi Kyu-bo 山夕詠井中月 (산석영정중월) – 이규보(李奎報) in 2012 Korean Drama / Sageuk The Moon Embracing the Sun





A monk living in the mountains fell for the moonlight.

He scooped it from the water and poured it into a bottle.

Moon in water

Graphic adapted from 달의 연인 - 보보경심 麗(려)

But when he returned to the temple,

he realized as he tilted the bottle, the moonlight would disappear too.


Life, as embodied by moonlight, is essentially evanescent, yet rare is the person who does not lust after power, fame, wealth or love or who remains unperturbed by grievances or losses. This Buddhist concept of emptiness can be perceived in celebrated Goryeo Dynasty poet Yi Kyu-Bo’s poem above. In The Moon Embracing the Sun, Yeon-woo cited his lines in her apology letter to Crown Prince Lee Hwon, urging him not to take an incident where she mistook him for a palace thief to heart. Interestingly, though, the letter itself was not an effort to ‘let it go’ on the part of Yeon-woo herself, but rather, embodied the longing of a young woman for her teenage sweetheart. Does the spirit of the letter then contradict its conveyed meaning?

Well, emptiness in Buddhism – which, incidentally, was the state religion in the Goryeo Dynasty – goes deeper than nothingness. While the idea is that all phenomena are empty in themselves, it does not mean they can never be of value to some greater purpose. Rather, Buddhism holds that everything is dependently originated and interconnected. Yet only after we release our grasp on things for their superficial significance and free ourselves from the negative thoughts that arise because of this attachment to them can we embrace the nobler notions of unconditional love and self-sacrifice. And these ideals are what many a romance drama ultimately boils down to.


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