Chinese Idiom about Life as a Dream: Uncooked Millet Yet, a Lifetime Dream Spent

"Uncooked millet yet, a lifetime dream spent" is used to metaphorically depict everything experienced in the real world, ultimately fading away like a fleeting dream. In life, we often believe we possess many things, but when facing the end of life, do we similarly lament that life is like "Uncooked millet yet, a lifetime dream spent"?
Chinese Idiom about Life as a Dream: Uncooked Millet Yet, a Lifetime Dream Spent

"Uncooked millet yet, a lifetime dream spent" is employed as a metaphor for all experiences in the real world, which ultimately vanish like a fleeting dream.

In this tale, what does the symbolism of "millet" entail?

"Millet" refers to foxtail millet, a type of grain grown in the northern regions of China, and one of the staple crops in the ancient Yellow River basin. Also known as "dwarf setaria" or "giant setaria", it is commonly referred to as "millet" colloquially. It is the smallest grain among the five staple crops. The protagonist, the scholar surnamed Lu, experiences an entire lifetime within a dream, only to awaken and realize that the millet, prepared before his slumber, has yet to be cooked! This intriguing tale dates back over a millennium to China's Tang Dynasty.

In the seventh year of the Kaiyuan era during the Tang Dynasty, the Taoist monk surnamed Lü passed through Handan. Along the way, he found lodging at an inn where he soon encountered a scholar surnamed Lu, dressed in coarse garments and riding a horse. Lu joined the monk at the table, and the two engaged in lively conversation.

Gazing at his worn and tattered clothing, Lu sighed deeply, "A man of great aspirations living in this world yet achieving nothing, impoverished and desolate as I am now."

Chinese Idiom about Life as a Dream: Uncooked Millet Yet, a Lifetime Dream Spent

The Taoist replied, "Looking at your appearance, free from illness and suffering, speaking and laughing with ease, why lament your plight?"

Lu lamented, "I merely exist day to day, for I have never truly fulfilled my desires."

The Taoist remarked, "But aren't you living comfortably and contentedly now?"

Lu responded, "For those aspiring to scholarly pursuits, one should strive to establish a legacy, to gain renown far and wide, to hold positions of prominence as accomplished scholars and warriors, enjoying esteemed reputations and dignified statuses, listening to beautiful melodies, and ensuring the prosperity of one's family, wealth expanding for generations to come. That is what truly aligns with my aspirations." As he spoke, Lu began to drift into slumber...

The Taoist possessed magical abilities indeed.

At that moment, the innkeeper was preparing to cook yellow millet rice. From his bag, the Taoist produced a blue-and-white porcelain pillow and whispered mysteriously to Lu, "If you sleep on my pillow, it will grant you all your wishes."

Lu obediently lay down on the pillow, only to find the holes on it growing larger and the space becoming increasingly bright and expansive. He couldn't resist stepping into the opening, only to find himself unexpectedly back in his own home.

Several months later, Lu married a beautiful woman from the Cui family in Qinghe. With her generous dowry, their life improved steadily. After a year, he passed the imperial examination and embarked on a career in government service. His fortunes flourished, and he ascended the ranks, epitomizing the vicissitudes of life as he strived upwards. Along the way, he amassed vast estates, luxurious residences, beautiful women, and fine horses. Despite facing accusations and exile twice, he was always reinstated in the capital. It was during his second perilous imprisonment, on the brink of death, that he confessed to his wife, "Our ancestral home in Shandong has five acres of fertile land, enough to sustain us comfortably. Why did I relentlessly pursue wealth and power? Today, falsely accused and facing a death sentence, even the dream of wandering the roads of Handan in humble attire has become a luxury."

Thus, he picked up the knife, intending to end his life, only to be stopped by his wife, thus spared from suffering. While his falsely accused companions were executed, he alone managed to escape death through the intervention of a palace official. He was granted a commuted sentence and sent into exile.

Several years later, the Emperor learned of his innocence. Once again, Lu was elevated to the position of Chancellor of the Imperial Academy and bestowed the title of Duke of Yan, showered with imperial favor and glory. In his later years, his descendants flourished, each one outstanding, enjoying the luxuries and honors of the world. Ultimately, he retired to his hometown due to illness, though not officially permitted, he departed under the Emperor's blessings and concern.

At this point, Lu stretched lazily, only to awaken from his dream and realize the Taoist was still beside him, the millet rice still uncooked, everything around him unchanged from before he fell asleep.

Chinese Idiom about Life as a Dream: Uncooked Millet Yet, a Lifetime Dream Spent

He eagerly rose and questioned the Taoist, "Am I dreaming?"

The Taoist replied, "Now you understand that the life you desired to pursue is just like this dream, don't you?"

Lu fell into deep contemplation for a while before sighing, "Having experienced the joys and sorrows of life, its riches and honors, its ups and downs, its cycles of birth and death, I now fully comprehend. Master, you have awakened me from my delusions with this dream. How can I not be grateful for the lesson?" With that, he bowed deeply to the Taoist in gratitude and departed.

Thus, the origin of the idiom "Uncooked millet yet a lifetime dream spent" is explained, derived from Shen Ji-Ji's "The World Inside a Pillow" during the Tang Dynasty.

Some say that dreams serve as channels for communicating with the subconscious. Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud expounded on theories and interpretations of dreams in many of his early nineteenth-century works. He regarded dreams as manifestations of inner desires and anxieties, often associated with repressed childhood memories or thoughts.

In our own country's classics, there are various descriptions of dreams. For instance, the familiar Confucius lamented in his old age, "Long has it been! I no longer dream of (the teachings of the ancient sage) Duke of Zhou,"

indicating subjective psychological activities with meanings, as "thoughts by day, dreams by night." Zhuangzi also recounted the story of "Zhuang Zhou dreaming of a butterfly," questioning whether it was Zhuangzi dreaming of being a butterfly or vice versa, illustrating the perpetual transformation of all things. Additionally, in Buddhist teachings, phenomena such as honor and wealth are often explained through the concept of "form is emptiness, emptiness is form," elucidating the inherent emptiness of worldly appearances.

Therefore, do we perceive our own lives as akin to "Uncooked millet yet, a lifetime dream spent"?

  • The fleeting nature of life often evokes a sense of "Uncooked millet yet, a lifetime dream spent."
  • The symbolism of "Uncooked millet yet, a lifetime dream spent" reminds us that riches and fame are as illusory as a dream.
  • Endless pursuits may ultimately resemble "Uncooked millet yet, a lifetime dream spent."

Written by Bubu
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