Green Plum Wine

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wu Li Edited by Scott Bray

On a hot sum­mer’s day, there is much to be said for the sim­ple plea­sure of drop­ping a small cube of ice into a glass of crys­tal clear plum wine, watch­ing it crack and en­joy­ing its re­fresh­ing taste.

On a hot sum­mer’s day, there is much to be said for the sim­ple plea­sure of tak­ing a small cube of ice and watch­ing it crack in a glass of crys­tal clear plum wine. For those in the know, the mere men­tion is enough to re­mind one im­me­di­ately of its re­fresh­ing, tart flavour.

Plums blos­som as early as win­ter, but the fruits them­selves do not ripen un­til late spring and early sum­mer. As the days get warmer, flow­ers come into full bloom. As the flow­er­ing sea­son ap­proaches its end, their tempt­ing green fruit with its unique sour flavour be­gins to ripen. The Chi­nese id­iom, “quench­ing thirst by think­ing of plums,” first recorded in Shishuo xinyu ( A New Ac­count of Tales of the World), tells how Chi­nese war­lord Cao Cao of the Three King­doms pe­riod (AD 220– 280) clev­erly con­soled his thirsty sol­diers. Dur­ing their march, Cao’s sol­diers were with­out wa­ter and ex­tremely thirsty. Cao spread the news among his sol­diers that they would soon ar­rive at a for­est

of fruit­ing plum trees and would be able to quench their thirst on their sweet, tart fruits. His sol­diers, mouths wa­ter­ing at the thought of these “plums,” were able to con­tinue march­ing un­til they found wa­ter.

The plum’s sour and sweet tones make for a de­lec­ta­ble wine. In a good plum wine, one ex­pe­ri­ences both the sweet­ness of the fruit and the mel­low­ness of a fine wine.

It is said that Cao Cao was the first to make wine with green plums. In so do­ing he cre­ated a story known as “dis­cussing he­roes over green plum wine” recorded in the Ro­mance of the Three King­doms, which has lasted gen­er­a­tions. As the story goes, after Liu Bei sought refuge with Cao Cao, Liu hid his ca­pa­bil­ity and am­bi­tion in the cap­i­tal of Xuchang by de­vot­ing him­self to gar­den­ing and plant­ing veg­eta­bles, for fear of be­ing found out. It was an act which, in the words of Zhang Fei, was “some­thing he­roes show con­tempt for.” Liu was a hero him­self, possess­ing the qual­i­ties of a state leader. Although he had only Guan Yu and Zhang Fei as mil­i­tary of­fi­cers and a troop of less than 3,000 sol­diers un­der his com­mand, Liu was widely known across the coun­try as a man of good faith. Cao Cao, him­self as­pir­ing to rule the land, con­sid­ered Liu a com­peti­tor. In spite of Liu’s at­tempt to shy away from any lofty as­pi­ra­tions dur­ing his stay in Xuchang, Cao Cao was fully aware that Liu could be a pow­er­ful ri­val if given the chance. As Liu was wa­ter­ing his veg­eta­bles one sunny day, two men sent by Cao in­vited him for a drink. Liu fol­lowed them. When he ar­rived at the des­ti­na­tion, he saw Cao sit­ting in a pav­il­ion in his back gar­den, a plate of green plums and a pot of wine to his side. Cao told him, “You’ve been do­ing great things at home!”

The mean­ing be­hind Cao’s words made Liu’s face turn pale. The war­lord then men­tioned “Learn­ing to grow veg­eta­bles isn’t easy,” re­liev­ing his stricken coun­ter­part. Cao re­lated his story of the sol­diers march­ing for plums, and with the mood im­proved, they both sat down to freely en­joy the wine in­fused with green plums and con­verse in pri­vate. When Cao asked Liu who were the he­roes of the present day, Liu men­tioned the names of a dozen fa­mous men, such as Yuan Shu and Liu Biao, but the war­lord did not agree. Point­ing his fin­ger first at his guest and then him­self, Cao said, “The only he­roes in the world are you and I.” Liu was shocked, and his chop­sticks rat­tled to the floor. At that mo­ment, a storm burst with a tremen­dous peal of thun­der and rush of rain. Liu acted as if the thun­der­storm had given him a shock and hid the fact that it was the words he had heard that had so star­tled him. For hun­dreds of years, the story of “dis­cussing he­roes over green plum wine” has been told far and wide, with sto­ry­tellers vy­ing to cre­ate a heroic at­mos­phere by fol­low­ing suit.

The late spring and early sum­mer, when green plums sway in the wind and rain, is the per­fect time to make plum wine, which is sweet and mel­low with a slight hint of sour­ness.

It is easy to make green plum wine. First, choice green plums are soaked in salty wa­ter be­fore be­ing cleaned in clear wa­ter and dried. The dried plums are then placed in a con­tainer, along with a layer of rock su­gar and some high- al­co­hol rice wine. When the su­gar dis­solves after a few days, a sec­ond layer of green plums and an­other layer of rock su­gar are placed in the jar. The same process is re­peated sev­eral times un­til all the rock su­gar dis­solves and the green plums are cov­ered in wine. Af­ter­ward, the con­tainer is sealed and put in a dark place for six months to a year.

China is a coun­try known for pro­duc­ing good wine. Po­ets were of­ten in­spired by wine and wrote of plum wine in their po­ems. In his poem “Wan ge“(“an el­egy”) Bao Zhao (c. AD 414–466) wrote: “I re­mem­ber the days when we drank to­gether, plain dishes filled with green plums.” Li Ying of the Tang Dy­nasty also de­scribed how plum wine is made in “Chunri ti shan­jia” (“vis­it­ing a mountain dweller on a spring day”): “On the mountain road look­ing for pur­ple ferns, un­der the tree I picked some green plums; ten­der tea leaves turn greener after stir­ring; newly made wine we are heat­ing.” Dur­ing the Song Dy­nasty, po­ems about plum wine be­came an even more com­mon sight. Sima Guang (1019–1086) re­lated in “Kan­hua si­jueju Cheng Yaofu” (“a sight­see­ing poem to Yaofu”): “To go with the wine, just pick some green plums; there is no need to pre­pare other dishes.” In “Chunri tianyuan za­x­ing“(“a pas­toral poem on a spring day”), Fan Chengda (1126–1193) wrote: “Peo­ple re­turn to the town from tomb sweep­ing, newly opened rice wine and green plums they’re car­ry­ing; as the jour­ney is short and time suf­fi­cient, why not come to heat the wine in my thatched hut?” While the mood to com­pose may have struck each poet, be­hind each com­po­si­tion, the at­trac­tion of plum wine must have also played its part.

In China, al­most all clas­sic food and wine is de­picted in beau­ti­ful le­gends and clas­si­cal po­ems. Even the most com­mon foods have been de­scribed in lit­er­ary works. He Zhu ( 1052– 1125), a Song ci poet and de­scen­dant of the Tang Dy­nasty poet He Zhizhang ( c. AD 659– 744), ex­pressed his melan­choly once in the poem Qingyu An: Heng­tang Lu

(“Lake­side Lane: to the tune of Green Jade Cup”): “Just see a misty plain where grass grows thick, a town­ful of willow down waft­ing on the breeze, or driz­zling rain yel­low­ing all green plums!” The poet tried to tell later gen­er­a­tions that one should en­joy the hap­pi­ness of drink­ing and fall­ing in love when green plums are at their most beau­ti­ful and to live with­out re­gret over the yel­low­ing of the plums, when ev­ery­thing is too late.

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