Spring in Beijing means willow fluff riding on the breeze, rolling in little dust bunnies on the grey pavements, the bright young green of willow leaves filtering the flat sunlight.
For a glorious month or two in March and April the temperatures are balmy, requiring only a light coat. Wave after wave of flowers bloom in extravagant masses – first the yellow yingcunhua, then the cherry blossoms, tinged just slightly pink, then the crabapples, the peach blossoms on their curious upright sticks and finally the generous peonies.
The second week of April I remembered that when I came to visit Xuwen in Beijing in 2014 it was right after my birthday, and we went to Jingshan Park where the peonies were blooming. Looking more like bowls or balls than the typical flower, these heavy blossoms are as big as a hand, or even a face. Their multiple petals form complex plays of light and shadow.
They come in magenta, crimson, pale dusty pink and the purest white and sit in rather short rounded bushes with large green leaves shaped like a duck’s webbed foot. At Jingshan Park, or “Scenic Hill” Park, so called for its panoramic views of the Forbidden City, they are planted on the ground level and also in belts along the hill, so you would encounter clusters of blossoms as you ascend to see the glistening orange rooftops of the Forbidden City.
On the serene tiers of the park are gnarled pine trees, twisted into sinuous shapes from extreme age. They frame the views of the orange tiled roofs that shimmer in the distance in the setting sun. The view of the Forbidden City is still awe-inspiring in the 21st century, even though it is no longer the seat of power in China. It is a view of great, ancient grandeur that millions of Chinese looked up to for millennia, and not even the space-age egg of the National Grand Theatre of China looming some distance away detracts from its power over the landscape.
As I climb the hill, Chinese holidaymakers make their way up alongside me in groups of three or four. Elderly Beijingers haul their fancy SLRs from flower to flower, like oversized, technologically enhanced bees. They pick out the freshest blossoms, shunning the ones that have been overblown, each intent on curating only the best of reality.
Younger women in unfashionable clothes hold their cellphones on selfie sticks, either to get closer to the blossoms (a fence separates us from them) or to position their faces in the same frame as the bountiful petals. I know the kind of photos they are aiming to produce – with sharp chins and large eyes formed by the angle the camera, tilting down on them from above. Some Chinese smartphone cameras even automatically smooth away blemishes on your skin, or tell you what age you appear to be while taking selfies. Definitely not to my taste, but apparently there is a market for that.
Just a week before going to Yunnan for my birthday the crabapple blossoms were in full bloom along the banks of the canal running through the Yuan Dynasty Park (Yuan Da Du) along the stretch around An Zhen Men subway stop. They were a magnificent sight, all shades of pink and dark red, some with many whorls of petals and some simple five-petal affairs.
There was one particular patch of stately crabapple trees which formed a pink forest under which happy Chinese people wandered, their cellphones never leaving their hands.
One woman was doing a roaring business selling corn puffs – long cylinders of crunchy corn, some of which were bent into a spiral like a lollipop. Both adults and children munch of them while appreciating the flowers.
Other enterprising people hawk flower bands made of plastic to wear on your heads like a crown and take pictures in. Girls with red, pink, yellow or blue flowers on their hair pose in front of the real blossoms, showing their best sides to the smartphone cameras.
Every time I walk down a flower-drenched street, I am filled with a sense of terrible urgency to record what I see. It almost robs me of the joy of seeing the flowers to know their terrible fragility.
One week hence, and it will all be gone, thus the desperate need to take as many snaps as possible. I wonder if we enjoyed the blossoms better before the universal access of cameras, particularly these disposable digital ones, which we store away on our phones and in the cloud barely to be recalled again.