Let’s give thanks for what the long winter of the pandemic brought out in us
19 April 2021
In Chinese art, pine, bamboo and plum blossom symbolise fortitude, modesty and endurance – traits that help us through dark days. These traits have helped us through the pandemic as we emerge into a hopeful spring
Throughout China, people are celebrating the arrival of spring. I, too, am excited about what flowers I may see or smells I might savour this spring, my first as the UN resident coordinator. As the days go by, temperatures will rise, frozen lakes will melt, and farmers will get to work in their rice paddies. Cities, towns and villages will be showered with rain or shrouded in soft mists.
We’ll be seeing and smelling pear blossoms and peach blossoms, azaleas blooming, and cherry blossoms carpeting the land. In Beijing, I am told that we can look forward to apricot flowers, lilacs and peonies.
There is much to celebrate. The whole world, we can now hope, is seeing the first signs of spring, emerging from the long winter of the pandemic. As vaccines proliferate and as people return to work and school, we have much to be grateful for, even as we mourn our many losses.
But before we turn fully to spring, let us give thanks for winter. Not thanks for the pandemic, which has been so catastrophic, but thanks for what it brought out in us. Many of you will already know something that I just recently learned. That is the “three friends of winter”, a motif in much Chinese art and poetry. For those who don’t know, these three friends are pine, bamboo, and plum blossom. They are symbols of fortitude, modesty and endurance – traits that help us through the frosty, dark days of winter. And they have helped us through the pandemic.
I feel a kinship with the three friends of winter. At the United Nations, we often speak of resilience, equity and sustainability. They are the marks of a peaceful and prosperous world that the UN is working towards for all of us today and countless generations to come.
In “resilience”, we see societies that have been made strong enough to withstand what shocks may come their way, be it violence or disaster or disease. By “sustainability”, we mean a world in balance, one in which we enjoy the fruits of the earth but do not gorge on them; we cultivate them for future generations. By “equity”, we mean to focus on the basic equality and dignity of all human beings, no matter their birth or their station.
“Resilience”, “sustainability” and “equity” are technical terms, as the UN is wont to use. I think they find poetic expression in the image of pine, bamboo, and plum blossoms.
Pine is evergreen and demonstrates the virtue of endurance, working day in and day out for whatever spring glories we wish for in our families or the world. Bamboo is strong stuff, whether for shelters or musical instruments, and it has a simple beauty. Plum blossoms have been lying quietly in wait all winter, and they are among the first flowers to blossom in spring, showing their rich and lively shades of pink, with dashes of white and yellow. I like to think that all three are modest; they do not show off, they do not need to.
Spring would not happen without winter. The fields need to lie fallow. The earth needs its rest.
There are the seasons that we cycle through every year. And then there are greater seasons and wider circles. There is a spring which the nations of the world have committed to reaching by the year 2030. That spring is called the Sustainable Development Goals. The gifts of that spring are: no hunger, education and health for all, gender equality, a liveable planet, and more.
China has been a global leader in this effort and is working tirelessly every day to end poverty, advance human development and prosperity. I am grateful to be here in China, with a brilliant United Nations Country Team in this important work with China, ensuring we leave no one behind.
Together, we will need endurance, modesty and fortitude. Let us all join with the three friends of winter, and march towards the spring of lasting peace, progress and prosperity.
Blog was originally published on South China Morning Post. Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Coordinator in China.