Trees in Beijing
Ancient and rare trees that are scattered throughout the capital make for a lush, poetic, pleasant landscape for the city.
Official Tree of Beijing
From May to July each year, blossoming Chinese scholar trees present a colourful scroll against the antique buildings along East Chang’an Avenue and West Chang’an Avenue. Such trees can also be found among old, lowslung hutong (lanes and alleys). Such localities often offer peace and serenity both at day and at night. In Beijing, many broad roads are flanked with long stretches of neatly planted Chinese scholar trees, such as Nanchizi Street, Beichizi Street, Nanchang Street and Beichang Street. At the gates of some temples, Chinese scholar trees cover the buildings with green shade, adding solemn, elegant flavour to the scenes.
A good match with the city, the Chinese scholar tree is the official tree of Beijing.
During the 1970s–1980s, afforestation programmes thrived in the city. In September 1985, Beijing Daily and other media outlets launched a programme to choose the official tree and flower of Beijing in order to promote environmental protection. They received more than 3,000 letters from the public.
In the spring of 1986, the Chinese Society of Forestry, China Wildlife Conservation Association and other agencies engaged young people to choose the official tree and flower of the city,
gathering 5,000-plus articles for recommendation. The organisers heard many voices.
They listed the merits of the Chinese scholar tree. They normally grow in plains and highland areas with up to 1,000 m of elevation. In Beijing, they are common along streets and alleys and represent the character of common people. Chinese scholar trees have plumelike fronds, branches that can twine and climb, and roots that can pierce into stone. They also have elegant gestures and manners. They put forth strings of yellow flowers even on unexpectedly cool spring days. They provide shade for passengers in the scorching summer. They are exactly what people expect from an official tree representing the city.
In July 1986, the People’s Government of Beijing Municipality established a group to choose the official tree and flower of the city and defined the major principles of selection. The official tree of the city should adapt to the climate and natural environment of Beijing and should be resistant to cold and drought-resistant. It should have luxuriant foliage and a good shape and be popular with the people. The official tree should also echo the cultural richness of the capital and the mentality of Beijingers.
Chinese Scholar Tree Meets Requirements
Two months later, Beijing Zhongshan Park held a special event to select the official tree and flower. After examining flowers, trees and pictures in the park, tens of thousands of citizens cast their votes. The Chinese scholar tree was the most popular and gained the title.
In 1987, the 6th session of the 8th People’s Congress of Beijing approved the Chinese scholar tree as the official tree of the city. More Chinese scholar trees have been planted along the roads since then as well.
In Beijing, cultural relics exist under a special human-nature relationship. Heritage should be viewed from the perspectives of trees, stone and water.
The Palace Museum houses magnificent oriental buildings, numerous cultural relics and towering ancient trees among the palaces and halls.
A huge amount of wood was used to build brick-wood structures at the palace, which cover a building area of 720,000 sq.m. For the purpose of safety and to highlight the majesty of the Palace Museum, few trees were planted within the museum, except in some gardens.
In the imperial garden, rare flowers and plants can be found among palaces, bowers, halls and pavilions, including more than 100 ancient cypresses. Most of them are 100–300 years old, vigorous, towering and lush.
There is a Chinese juniper with a bulged base within the Palace Museum that looks like a pot-bellied arhat. The tree is said to be the same age as the Palace Museum, which would be more than 600 years old. It still stands proudly with dry branches reaching to the ridge of the Pavilion of Prolonging Splendor.
The bulged burls, which make the tree look senile, are actually frontiers guarding the tree from pathogens and have made it resilient enough to survive the vicissitudes of history.
There are six Chinese junipers in the imperial garden, including four surrounding Wanshou Pavilion, one behind the Gate of Heaven’s Primacy under the Hall of Imperial Peace and another on the paved path between the Gate of Heaven’s Primacy and the Gate of Earthly Tranquility. The one under the Hall of Imperial Peace has the best shape, with herringbone roots on two sides intertwining in the air two m above the ground. Interlocked branches symbolise love in Chinese legends. Emperor Xuantong (reign: 1909–1912) and his empress had pictures taken here for their wedding. Some people believe that interlocked branches
also stand for good governance and social harmony. In regions where such branches appear, local officials might be rewarded by emperors. Rare ancient trees, though not ubiquitous in the Palace Museum, have witnessed a lot of history.
The Temple of Heaven is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is home to more than 3,600 ancient cypresses, most of which were planted during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). They come in various shapes and have some legends associated with them.
Trees serve as the “lungs” and “kidneys” of Central Beijing. They reduce air pollution and inject oxygen into the atmosphere. Each morning, hordes of citizens go to local parks for morning exercise.
Throughout Beijing, many ancient and famous trees have their own stories.
Most of them have thick, twined trunks and branches and stand with an imposing appearance. They symbolise ancient Beijing and add antique flavour and more colour to the cityscape.
Flowers in Beijing
Zhu Ziqing (1898–1948, a modern Chinese litterateur) wrote a poem describing the magnolias at the Dajue Temple.
Every April, the Dajue Temple becomes a sea of magnolia flowers. Nearly 300 years old, these ancient trees grow in the Siyi Hall compound area. Their fame was elevated by poems and inscriptions on walls dedicated to them. Fu Ru (1896– 1963, a calligrapher and painter) composed a poem to describe the flowering scenes at the Dajue Temple and his thoughts as he visited steles from the Liao Dynasty (AD 916–1125) and appreciated ancient magnolias.
Various relics add cultural value to these ancient trees and the whole temple. It is a great pleasure to appreciate the flowers and works of calligraphy on a spring day.
Magnolias are spring messengers, and red leaves are spirits of autumn. The red leaves in the Fragrant Hills epitomise Beijing’s autumnal atmosphere.
The appreciation of red leaves can be traced back to the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234). The best red leaves appeared during the period of Emperor Qianlong, when smoke trees were planted on a large scale. During the 10th year of Qianlong’s reign (1745), a large number of cypresses, pagoda trees, elms, junipers, maples and gingkoes were planted here. Since then, a gorgeous scroll unfolds in the Fragrant Hills every autumn.
Today, there are nearly 100 trees
that are 200–300 years old in the part of the Fragrant Hills that features trees with red leaves, similar to the scenes that had mesmerised the emperor. The Red Leaf Festival has been held at Fragrant Hills Park from late October to early November every year since 1989. The Double Ninth Festival and Chrysanthemum Festival are also held here at this time. People view the leaves and flowers and taste fruit at the Red Leaf Festival, which is appealing to the public.
In recent years, the Peach Flower Festival and Apricot Blossom Festival in the spring and Ginkgo Festival and Red Leaf Festival in the autumn have emerged as brands of tree culture and enrich the lives of Beijingers.
Trees and Men of Letters
Magnolia, crab apple, peony and cherry bay trees symbolise riches and honour in Chinese culture, persimmon trees signify that “everything fares well” and pine trees symbolise longevity. Literary people, therefore, take delight in planting trees and enjoy these additional meanings.
There is an ancient Chinese wisteria in the former residence of Ji Xiaolan (1724–1805, a politician and litterateur of the Qing Dynasty), which originally grew in the Jinyang Restaurant compound.
Each spring, the wisteria would burgeon tender vines and new buds. Ji Xiaolan described the florescent views of the wisteria in his writing. Reading his works is like entering a classic scene of both antiquity and vitality.
Writer Lao She (1899–1966, a modern novelist and playwright) visited the ancient tree many times and enjoyed the special wheaten food of the restaurant. He also composed a poem to commend the nice dishes and the practice of protecting the wisteria.
Ji Xiaolan planted crab apple trees also. There were originally two crab apple trees in front of his former residence. Now, only the one on the east side exists. As the stele under the tree records, Ji Xiaolan and his maidservant Wenluan loved each other and they both loved crab apple trees. Their romance was obstructed by other people though. Wenluan died in a state of depression. In memory of his beloved girl, mournful Ji Xiaolan planted crab apple trees.
Lao She ardently loved Beijing for its history and the Chinese scholar trees, jujube trees and persimmon trees in courtyards and hutong.
In 1949, Lao She returned to his homeland from the United States. He purchased a courtyard on Fengfu Hutong, which is only several m away from Wangfujing. He and his wife planted more than 100 species of chrysanthemum, two persimmon trees and two jujube trees in the courtyard. His wife named the courtyard the “Red Persimmon Yard.”
The courtyard witnessed his prolific output of literature. Over the course of 17 years, he wrote 27 dramas, two novels and a large number of essays, poems and other works on folk art. Whenever he tired of writing, he would come out and take a look at the flowers and trees. When the persimmon trees bore fruit, Lao She would invite friends to have a taste and gave them some as gifts when they left.
Zang Kejia (1905–2004, a modern poet), a close friend of Lao She, wrote an essay to describe the fond memories of persimmon trees and fruit. In honour of the two persimmon trees, a Japanese publishing house published the collected works of Lao She. This book is called Lao She’s Persimmons.
Today, the jujube trees and persimmon trees stand even taller and are heavy with fruit each autumn, reminding people of their planter.
Planting trees in compounds is of course not exclusive to celebrities and literati. In old Beijing, jujube trees and persimmon trees were very common in courtyards. They added beauty to the ancient city and sustained its stories.
The trees in Beijing feature endless history, numerous stories and colourful scenes amid changing seasons.
Trees at the Palace Museum
An ancient ginko tree at the Dajue Temple in Beijing’s Western Hills
Ancient trees are very scenic and offer shade for residents in the summer.
Ancient trees in the Temple of Heaven Park