Anyan trees are a common sight in southern China — from the smallest village to the largest city, these luxurious fig trees are omnipresent, covering walls, temples, river banks, and lining street sides. For generations these trees, with their magnificent
On a sunny and warm afternoon, I arrive in Fuzhou City, the bustling capital of Fujian Province. Through Fuzhou runs the Min River, a vital economic route that cuts through the flat land before it unleashes its water into the Pacific Ocean. Though Fuzhou is above of the tropic of cancer, north of the lush tropical forests that southern China is known for, it remains warm year round. Add to the heat the surplus of water delivered each year by the subtropical monsoon, Fuzhou has been taken over by some of the most wonderful forest ecosystems in the country. It is here, on the warm and wet eastern coast of China, that banyans have found a place to live, and thrive.
These banyans are not simply growing in Fuzhou; they are a part of what makes Fuzhou tick. Renowned for its role in Chinese history, the city is also known by the more poetic name “Rong Cheng”, or fig city. It has earned this name because its more than one thousand years of fig planting. The amicable climate of Fuzhou partly explains this. Similar to that of the banyan tree’s original home much further south, the climate of Fuzhou made for a suitable home for banyans to take root. Once planted, they took over the city and have since become an inseparable part of Fuzhou. Their rich and plump crowns grow like bulbous green clouds, and seen from a distance these green clouds cover the city — they have taken over, covering small alleys, old houses, hillsides, temples, and roadsides alike; more importantly, just as they have grown to cover the city, they have also grown their way into the minds, and hearts of the people of Fuzhou.
Fuzhou’s Green Totem
When A-QI, a friend and veritable encyclopedia of Fuzhou’s history, heard that I was in the city to explore the connection between banyans and the culture of Fuzhou, he quickly arranges to meet with me.
Not wasting time on a greeting, when he arrives he simply says “let’s go to Fuzhou Forest Park!”. His excitement contagious, I follow him, now already steps ahead of me down the road.
As we weave through the city, taking short cuts through alleys and passing buildings both old and new, he weaves a tale of banyans. His stories are all about banyans, various species of figs ( Ficus ), but they are more than just stories; they are tales of Fuzhou itself. And, to add punctuation to his tales, the trees are themselves draped over almost everything we pass.
During the Song Dynasty (960–1127), Fuzhou had two magistrates that each played integral roles in bringing banyans to Fuzhou, and helping to make it the banyan capital of China. The first was Cai Xiang (1012–1067). During his tenure he decided to plant some seven hundred banyans along the ancient roadway that connected Quanzhou and Zhangzhou. At the time the road was open and bustling with pedestrians and merchants and, importantly, blasted daily by the unforgiving heat of the sun. By planting these banyans, he gave the people who spent their days on the open streets something they dearly needed — shade. It was a simple act but it immediately improved the quality of life in the early city. The second fig-friendly magistrate was Zhang Boyu (1003–1070). He called on every family to plant a banyan around their home, hoping to increase shade but also make the city more beautiful. The streets had been taken care of by Cai Xiang, and now it was time to push banyans further into homes and yards and public spaces. Zhang’s plan worked, and together the two magistrates turned the city into a place crawling — almost literally — with beautiful banyans. It be-
The“banyan King”in the photo stands twenty meters high and the diameter of its trunk reaches ten meters. No one knows for certain how many years, or centuries, has it witnessed; some locals say it was planted 1,000 years ago during the Northern Song Dynasty. Some people say their ancestors planted two banyans and the two trees eventually grew into one. This could perhaps explain its giant canopy that covers over 1,330 square meters. People built large stone pillars to support the heavy, stretching branches of the“king.”in their eyes, it is more than merely a plant — it is a symbol and the embodiment of the land they live on.