An Abundance of Seasonal Fruits
Autumn in Beijing brings a pleasant coolness and beautiful, golden scenery. Orchards are bustling scenes; the trees laden with fruit, seem to call out to passers- by.
Autumn in Beijing coincides with harvest time, which not only brings a pleasant coolness, but also beautiful golden scenery. In Beijing, the orchards are bustling; the trees laden with fruit, seem to call out to passersby. The crimson pomegranates cast glances beyond the branches; lantern-like persimmons sway and dance in the wind; the sweet scent of sugar-roasted chestnuts that captivated scholars of the past and the present, would be a welcome diversion from their work; and boisterous children hold on tightly to their candied hawthorns as they skip happily through the streets of the millennia-old capital.
“When the moon is full on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, the fruit tray is filled to the brim with melons, nuts and pomegranates.” The evening of Mid-autumn Festival has long been an occasion for family reunions. At this time of year, people cover the table with fruits and mooncakes, peel open pomegranates, and open jars of candied fruit, whilst reciting poetry about the full moon and savouring the delicious fruit beneath the silver moonlight.
Unparalleled Fruit and Nuts
One line of poetry written during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) nicely captures an autumn scene in Beijing: “The fragrant chestnuts are roasting in the bustling market, accentuating the frosty chrysanthemum in the empty gardens.” In the cool autumn season when the cold winds squall and the chrysanthemums bloom, sugar-roasted chestnuts, that much cherished delicacy amongst Beijingers, would appear for sale; their distinct aroma accompanied by the cries of hawkers. Sugar-roasted chestnuts, along with roasted sweet potatoes and candied hawthorns, were once considered the three most characteristic snacks in Beijing during autumn and winter, and are still deeply loved by Beijingers today.
China is the hometown of chestnuts, whose long history of cultivation dates back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century–771 BC). In the Shijing (Book of Songs), it states: “On the mountains are the lacquer trees, in the low wet grounds are the chestnuts.” Kong Yinda, a scholar during the early-tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), wrote an annotation to this line saying, “The chestnuts grew outside the east gate, between the gardens or orchards, making them border trees.” In Zuozhuan (Master Zuo’s Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals) it is stated “Chestnuts were planted by the roadside, so they must be shade trees.” These records indicate that chestnut trees were being grown as border or shade trees back then.
In the book, Lüshi chunqiu (Lü’s Spring and Autumn Records), written during the Warring States Period (475–221 BC), it is recorded that, “There are three premium nuts, one of which is the Jishan chestnut.” The “Jishan chestnut” referred to here is none other than those that currently grow in the Yanshan Mountains in 10 towns of Miyun County—hence its alternative name: “Yanshan chestnut.” During the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220–280), the writer Lu Ji said in one of his poems that “Chestnuts are grown all over the country… However, those in Yuyang and Fanyang are unrivalled in taste.”yuyang is located in the southwest of Miyun County, proving that chestnuts have long been grown in the Yanshan Mountains.
Chestnuts are rich in nutrients and as such are known as the “king of nuts.” Sugarroasted chestnuts appeared as far back as the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279). One popular poem about this snack back then, went: “The chestnuts roasted deep yellow are served; over cups of wine I talked with my guest. By the third watch deep in the night, I heard peddlers hawking their sugar roasted chestnuts beyond the gate.” During the Liao Dynasty (AD 916–1125), the imperial clan built a liyuan (chestnut orchard) in the southwest of the Southern Capital (presentday Beijing). A servant of Xiao Han, a scholar of the imperial academy in the Liao Dynasty, became an official in charge of liyuan during the Tonghe Period. When introducing the method of how to roast chestnuts to Emperor Xingzong, he said, “When roasting chestnuts, the bigger ones tend to be cooked only when the smaller ones are overcooked, or even charred. It takes supreme technique to cook both evenly.”
During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Yanshan chestnuts were used as the main offering at the Imperial Mausoleum. More than a dozen chestnut orchards and hazelnut factories were established in nearby counties to produce chestnuts, walnuts and hazelnuts. Yanshan chestnuts have always been renowned as a hardy crop and have been acclaimed for thousands of years for their high quality and sweet taste.
In late autumn, the scent of freshly roasted chestnuts would make its way through the streets, appealing to passers-
by. Hao Yuxing a scholar during the
Qing Dynasty wrote in Shaishutang bilu (“Records of the Book-sunning Studio”): “When I first arrived in the capital, I saw a large cauldron placed over a stove at the entrance to the market. One man tended to the fire whilst the other sat atop a high stool, regularly churning the chestnuts with a long spade, so that they could be evenly heated.” Hao offered a detailed and vivid account of chestnut roasting. However, he failed to mention the secret to sugarroasted chestnuts, which is molten sugar for flavouring and coarse sand to provide an even heat, allowing the roasted chestnuts to be easily shelled. Fucha Dunchong, a scholar during the late Qing Dynasty, wrote in Jingshi suishiji (“Seasonal Records of Beijing”) that, “In October, chestnuts, sweet potatoes and other produces go on sale. The chestnuts roasted in black sand are exceedingly sweet and palatable. Reading under the oil lamp, I would shell a few during a break and savour the aroma.” The delicious taste of roasted chestnuts found favour not only with ordinary people, but also Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1736–1795), who wrote two poems praising them. One, entitled “Chestnut Feast,” goes: “The bigger ones are raw while the smaller ones are cooked; when they are cooked, the smaller ones are charred. They have to be evenly roasted, so timing and regular churning are crucial.”
In the past, the “Gongyi Store” on Xidan Beidajie offered premium sugar-roasted chestnuts for sale. The boss of the store would have his staff purchase raw chestnuts soon after the White Dew (mid-autumn period). The chestnuts collected would be carefully sorted through and those that were overly small, damaged by insects or broken would all be discarded. Only the well-proportioned, intact chestnuts were kept, which were then roasted in a cauldron. For old Beijingers, “Tong San Yi” was the most famous store for buying sugar-roasted chestnuts and is said to have been exclusively appointed to roast chestnuts for the Qing Palace. Later, when Yuan Shikai (1859–1916, a warlord and politician) took control of China, he specifically sent his servants there to buy roasted chestnuts to pamper Lady Yang, his fifth concubine.
Pears are known as the “king of fruits” for their juiciness, and sweet and sour taste. Native to China, they appear in the Book of Songs, which states, “There are baodi flowers on the hillside, and shusui in the valley” ( shusui being a variety of wild pear). Pears have long been eaten by Chinese people and were known as mifu, kuaiguo, and yuru in ancient times. There are many different varieties of the fruit, each with its own characteristics depending on where it grows, including Jingbai pear and Laiyang pear in Shandong, Korla pear in Xinjiang and Xueli pear in Tianjin.
It was said that the mother of Wei Zheng, a prime minister during the Tang Dynasty, suffered from a persistent cough but shunned the bitter taste of Chinese medicine. Wei Zheng created a pear paste by adding pears and sugar to the medicine and finally cured her cough. Emperor Xuanzong (AD 685–762) of the Tang Dynasty was a skilled musician and loved singing and dancing who often ordered performances in a pear orchard in the Imperial Garden. Therefore, theatrical circles gradually became known as the “Pear Garden.”
The most famous pear grown in Beijing is the Jingbai pear which is the only local variety of fruit to contain the word “jing” (standing for Beijing) in its name. In Dongshan Village, Mentougou District, there is a legend that Jingbai pears became a tribute during the Qing Dynasty. It is said that farmers from the village often went to the Fragrant Hill to sell their pears. Unfortunately, they were blackmailed by corrupt officials and banned from returning to the area. However, when Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1736–1795), who had often travelled to the area and eaten Jingbai pears, saw that there were no roadside vendors selling the fruit, he felt very strange and so sent people to find out what had happened. His emissary went all the way to Dongshan Village where he discovered the whole story. As such, Emperor Qianlong ordered that Jingbai pears be made an imperial tribute. There are still more than 100 pear trees that are over 200 years old in Dongshan Village, each bearing fruits with delicate texture, pleasant taste and unique flavour.
Sweet Hawthorns and Rare Longans
Beijingers have a special fondness for hawthorns, as witnessed by the old saying: “Jujubes are for August, hawthorns are for September and chestnuts are for October.” Hawthorns are a Chinese specialty which date back over 2,000 years. In the past, the fruit was known by various names, including honggua, tangqiuzi, shanlihong and hongguo. During the Ming Dynasty, its name was finalised by Li Shizhen as shanzha in the Bencao gangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica).
Liu Zongyuan, a poet during the Tang Dynasty, once wrote a poem saying: “Village boys brought me bitter bamboo shoots, and vulgar fellows gave me sour hawthorns as gifts. Villagers asked me to leave my house
on my crutches and attend their simple feast.” Under his writing brush, the hawthorn was put on par with bitter bamboo shoots, indicating that they were eaten during the Tang Dynasty. It should be noted that there are both sweet and sour varieties of hawthorns, however the former is rare, so Liu Zongyuan regarded it as a coarse food. During the Song Dynasty, candied hawthorns first appeared. Marinating originated during the Tang Dynasty, when honey was used to soak fruit and vegetables in order to preserve them. The result was “candied fruit.”
“Hawthorns are sweet and crispy, and are served on skewers coated with sugar.” During the Southern Song Dynasty, candied hawthorns first made their appearance. According to legend, during the Shaoxi Period in the Song Dynasty, Emperor Guangzong (1127–1162) was at his wits' end when his most beloved concubine lost her appetite and steadily became emaciated because of some strange disease. Attempts to treat her came to no avail and so the emperor had no choice but to advertise for a doctor. An itinerant doctor answered the call and entered the palace. After taking the patient's pulse, he said that fifteen hawthorns stewed in brown sugar before every meal for half a month would cure her. After following the doctor's prescription, the emperor's concubine was cured. Later, the crisp and sweet hawthorns made their way beyond the palace walls and became a popular snack among the people, who sold it on skewers in what is known as tanghulu. In Beijing, candied hawthorns were called midanr (lit. honey ball) in the Song Dynasty, and later tangduir (lit. sugar heap). The snack not only tastes good but also looks impressive. Crimson hawthorns are impaled on a bamboo stick which is coated with a thick translucent syrup. They are instantly recognisable even from a distance, appearing like trees heavy with fruit.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, hawthorns became widely accepted across North China, where the bitter cold left few choices for vegetables and fruits. As one of the six major areas for producing hawthorns in the country, Beijing had a ready supply of the fruit. During the Ming Dynasty, a lack of vegetables forced the imperial court to turn to candied fruits. The high amount of honey used invariably made eating them over the long-term quite a bore, and so crispy, sour hawthorns made an attractive alternative. In the book Dijing suishi jisheng (Records of My Year in the Capital), it is stated, “There are two varieties of hawthorn, one from Beijing and the other from elsewhere. The former is small and sweet, while the latter is big and sour, and thus can be made into cakes or flavoured with sugar. There are also candied fruits similar to hawthorns but which are much juicier and tastier.”
During the Ming Dynasty, the writer Song Yu gave a pictorial description of the longan fruit in his work “Longan Poem,” which went: “Below the golden rind there lies creamy flesh. The peeled fruit on a plate is like a luminous bead.” The longan usually ripens in the eighth month of the lunar calendar. As this month was named “gui” in ancient China, the fruit is also known as “guiyuan” (lit. gui round). Longans grow in South China and can be found as far back as the Han Dynasty over 2,000 years ago.
During the Song Dynasty, longans were already planted widely across Fujian Province. According to Xinghua fuzhi (“The Annals of Xinghua Prefecture”), in the second year
after Emperor Huizong (reign: 1100–1135) of the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960 –1127) ascended to the throne, the empress fell ill and the imperial doctors could not help. It just so happened that longans sent from Xinghua (now Putian in Fujian Province) as imperial tributes had arrived. The empress took a few and presently her appetite returned. After a few more, she could swallow and walk, and soon she had made a complete recovery. The overjoyed Emperor Huizong bestowed the name “guiyuan” on the fruit. By the Qing Dynasty, longans had found favour with ordinary Beijingers and gradually made their way from China to India and South Asia.
Abundant Jujubes and Intoxicating Grapes
The period around Mid-autumn Festival is the season when jujubes ripen. As the saying goes: “On July 15, red circles form on jujubes as they ripen, and on August 15 they are harvested.” Jujube trees are commonly found in Beijing and have a long history of cultivation, having been planted in the city as long as 3,000 years ago. The fruit is even recorded in Shiji ( Records of the Grand Historian), where it says: “Yan (Beijing) has abundant resources of fish, salt and jujubes.”
China is the home of jujubes. As early as the Spring and Autumn Period (770–446 BC) and the Warring States Period, jujube trees were being grown in the Yellow River Basin, and in the Qin (221–206 BC) and Han (206 BC–AD 220) dynasties, they were widely cultivated throughout the country. The earliest jujube trees produced “ji,” a wild sour date. In the “Odes of Qin” section of the Book of Songs, it is written “They flit about, the yellow birds, and rest upon the jujube trees.” And in the “Odes of Bin” one verse states “In the eighth (month), they knock down the jujubes.” During the Spring and Autumn Period, Zichan took up office in the State of Zheng, emphasising the rule of law. He is said to have “eradicated thievery in five years; the roads lined with peach and jujube trees, yet none of the fruit was stolen.” This shows that back then, jujube trees grew throughout the capital of Zheng but the people did not pick any.” Zhanguo ce (Stratagems of Warring States) records: “The North boasts abundant jujubes and chestnuts. The people do not till their land to make a living, yet they are sufficiently provided for, thanks to the bountiful jujubes and chestnuts. It is truly a land of abundance.” This means that during the Warring States Period, the people around present-day Beijing could get by on just jujubes and chestnuts even in lean years.
The jujube tree is surprisingly adaptable, as can be seen from the folk saying of “there's no such thing as too much water for chestnuts or too much sun for jujubes.” Among farmers there is also a saying that goes “peach trees yield in three years, apricot trees in four, pear trees in five, whilst jujube trees yield the year they are planted.” For this reason, governments in China have always highly valued the cultivation of jujube trees. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, they were planted so widely across Beijing that they became the main species in the hutong alleyways, siheyuan courtyard houses and surrounding villages. During the Qing Dynasty, Beijing was hit by two severe cold periods which wiped out a large number of the trees. Therefore, the imperial court ordered the military commander of Daxing, Wanping County and five cities to provide jujube trees for the capital. In Yanjing jiuwenlu (Record of Stories in Yanjing), one story states: “In the years of Qianlong, a man was taken into custody for secretly cutting down jujube trees along the imperial thoroughfare for firewood. He was caned twenty times and ordered to pay a fine of 30 taels of silver and plant 100 jujube trees.”
As one of the main cultivation centres of jujubes in China, Beijing is home to white jujubes, sour jujubes, seedless jujubes and other varieties with a history of over a thousand years, as well as the extremely famous Miyun jujube. In Wangzhuang Village, Nankou Town, Changping District, there is a veritable “sour jujube king tree” which stands 14 m tall. The ancient jujube tree in Wen Tianxiang Temple in Fuxue Hutong, Dongcheng District is said to have been personally planted by Wen Tianxiang, the famous patriot who lived during the Southern Song Dynasty. The trunk leans southward, coinciding with Wen's unswerving loyalty to his motherland, as depicted in the verse “My heart is always yearning for my motherland, like the needle of a compass” from his poem “Yangtze River.”
Grapes (putao) are a popular fruit in China, and are also known as caolongzhu and shanhulu. Together with apples, oranges and bananas, they are known as the “world's four major fruits.” Having originated along the coast of the Black Sea and Mediterranean, grapes spread to the Caucasus and Iraq only 7,000 years ago. The earliest written record about the fruit in China can be found in the
Book of Songs, which says “In the sixth month they eat the sparrow-plums and ao grapes.” Here “ao” is a variety of wild grape.
By the Spring and Autumn Period, grapes from Europe had reached the Western Regions, but the presence of the Huns and nomadic tribes prevented them spreading to the Central Plains. During the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wu sent Zhang Qian on a mission to the Western Regions to eliminate the influence of the Huns. On his way there, Zhang learned a lot about the local customs, and the abundant fruit varieties and crops piqued his interest. Intrigued by the fresh grapes in the State of Dayuan, he took a bite, and could not help but praise the succulent fruit. After returning to China, he submitted a report about Dayuan and Dayuezhi to Emperor Wu. From then on, contact between the Han Dynasty and the Western Regions became closer.
In the Records of the Grand Historian it states, “In Dayuan, grapes are used in brewing. Rich households keep 10,000 dan of the liquor” (one dan is equal to 100 litres). Li Shizhen also wrote about the fruit in Compendium of Materia Medica, saying, “Grapes can be used to make wine, which can be intoxicating. Hence its name.” The two characters that make up the Chinese word putao (grapes) mean “meet to drink socially” and “drunkenness,” respectively.
Known as the “Turpan of Southern Beijing,” Caiyu Town in Beijing's Daxing District is famous for producing grapes of good quality, high sugar content, even shape and good taste. The region is a primary grape producing area in suburban Beijing, where the fruit has been grown for over 100 years. Its rose-scented grape vineyards are especially worth mentioning. Covering an area of 100 mu (one mu is equal to 0.067 hectares), it is the largest vineyard of its kind in Beijing, and produces well-proportioned, sweet fruit.
Lucky Persimmons and Versatile Walnuts
“All things retire as autumn makes way to winter, except for the persimmons hanging from the trees like lanterns. I wonder why they haven't been picked; I'm told that the frost makes them exceedingly sweet.” In late autumn, the tall persimmon trees in the gardens, streets and courtyards of Beijing are straining under the weight of the fruit hanging from their branches. The lanternlike fruits add a poetic touch to the city in the autumn season.
China has a long history of persimmon cultivation, with the fruit first appearing in Xi'an. During the Shang (16th century–11th century BC) and Zhou dynasties, people learned how to remove the astringency from persimmons when collecting them in the wild, after which, the fruit became more palatable. To make the fruit easily available, people planted persimmon trees in their gardens as exotic plants. According to the Liji (Book of Rites), persimmons were a delicacy reserved for the monarch. Emperor Jianwen of the Liang dynasty praised the fruit as “sweet, crispy, succulent and tasty.” The Qimin yaoshu (Essential Techniques for the Welfare of the People) states: “Persimmons are usually planted as seedlings. If no seeding is available, tender shoots are grafted to jujube stocks, just like when grafting pears.” The mastery of persimmon grafting also contributed to an expansion in the scale of persimmon production.
During the Tang and Song dynasties, persimmons gradually became recognised for their advantages. In Youyang zazu (Miscellanies of Youyang) Duan Chengshi summarised the seven advantages of persimmon trees, saying, “Persimmon trees have seven big advantages. First, they have a long lifespan. Second, they create plenty
of shade. Third, they do not invite nesting by birds. Fourth, they are immune from worms. Fifth, their leaves can handle frost. Sixth, they are productive. Seventh, they have leaves large enough for use in calligraphy practice.” These many features meant that the trees began to be cultivated more widely. Poet Han Yu once wrote, “Invited by a friend to the temple, I found myself in a sea of red leaves.” Ma Yongqing wrote during the Southern Song Dynasty that “In visits to villages in Shaanxi during my tenure there, I often saw permission trees extending for miles and miles.” From those poems we can see the sheer scale of persimmon planting.
The late-yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and the early-ming Dynasty witnessed frequent natural disasters; and so fresh and dried persimmons were eaten to stave off hunger. It is said that Zhu Yuanzhang, founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, had eaten persimmons before he became emperor, and the experience greatly influenced his policies. Due to the government's advocacy, persimmons were then grown in almost all households in the mountainous northern areas which were prone to natural disasters.
Zhang Zhongshu, a poet during the Northern Song Dynasty, once praised persimmons in a poem: “More fragrant than the buds of Hualin Garden, boasting the crimson of plums cooled in fresh spring, the succulent flesh wrapped in a crimson waxy peel is unrivalled by nectar.” Persimmons generally ripen after the first frost; the thin peel, sweet taste and juiciness making them exceedingly appealing. The fruit is sweet and juicy when eaten raw, and takes on additional flavours after drying. Usually, larger persimmons are peeled and placed in the sun for 10 days to half a month and then used to make flat persimmon cake when they are fully dried. Properly dried persimmon cakes are covered in a thin layer of hoarfrost, also known as “persimmon frosting.”
The Chinese words for “persimmon” (shi) and “matter/thing” (shi) are homonymous in Chinese. As such, people during ancient times connected the fruit with auspicious sayings such as: “everything as one wishes” (shishi ruyi) and “everything going smoothly” (shishi anshun). For example, a traditional Han lucky pattern consists of two persimmons and a ruyi (an s-shaped ornamental object). Persimmon trees can grow up to 20 m in height, however they also make ideal potted plants and often feature around festivals, birthdays and special celebrations, as they are intended to express wishes for good luck.
Walnuts, generally called hetao in modern Chinese, are also known as qiangtao, wansuizi or changshouguo. According to Mingyu bielu (Supplementary Record of Famous Doctors), “The nut comes from Qianghu. Its seeds were brought to Shaanxi by Zhang Qian after he returned from a mission to the Western Regions during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 24) and then gradually spread east.” In ancient times, Qianghu included presentday South Asia and Eastern Europe as well as Xinjiang, Gansu and other domestic regions. When Zhang Qian introduced it to the Central Plains, he named it “hutao.” In 319 AD, Shi Le, a general from the State of Jin, seized the Central Plains and founded the Latter Zhao Dynasty (AD 319–352). However, he found the word “hu” obnoxious and so changed “hutao” to “hetao,” which is the name still used nowadays. Throughout history there have been many anecdotes about the nut. For example, the Taiping yulan (Readings of the Taiping Era) records that during the Jin Dynasty (AD 265–420), Han Yue the Grand Tutor once asked the emperor to give him a few walnuts, so that he might grow them in his hometown after he retired.
Aside from those used for food, there are over 100 other varieties of walnuts of varying sizes. Larger ones with thick shells, grotesque shapes and beautiful patterns are particularly cherished, because they can be used as “hand therapy walnuts” (two walnuts rotated in the palm of one hand) or for walnut carving. “Hand therapy walnuts” were formerly called “hand massaging walnuts” in ancient times. Originating in the Han and Sui dynasties (AD 581–618), they then became popular during the Tang and Song dynasties and prevailed in the Ming and Qing dynasties, when walnut hand-exercises were most fashionable in Beijing. Emperor Tianqi of the Ming Dynasty not only found it impossible to tear himself away from his walnuts, he also took to carving them himself. Therefore, a rumour spread of “the emperor forgetting about the state and instead carving walnuts.” Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty was also a connoisseur of walnuts. He was said to have written a rhapsody about walnuts, saying, “One cannot get more pleasure than from turning walnuts in the palm of one's hand.”
Famed Chinese Pomegranates
There was a popular saying in old Beijing that went “awnings, fish ponds, pomegranate trees,” used to describe the distinct landscape of siheyuan courtyard homes in Beijing. In old times, most of the rich and famous had pomegranate trees in their residences. These trees can grow either in pots or be planted in the ground, depending on the layout and size of the courtyard, between which would be small fish ponds. In the height of summer, people would love nothing more than to take a leisurely walk among the pomegranate trees and fish ponds protected from the scorching sun by the awnings.
Native to Persia (present-day Iran), pomegranates were introduced to China
during the Han Dynasty. In the Bowuzhi (Records of Diverse Matters) written during the Jin Dynasty by Zhang Hua, one story says: “On his mission to the Western Regions, Zhang Qian brought back pomegranate seeds from the Anshi State in Tulin. Therefore, the fruit was named Anshi Pomegranate.” When Zhang Qian reached Anshi State, he found the region to be suffering from drought, with parched land. Even the pomegranate trees in the Imperial Garden were dying. Therefore, Zhang Qian shared with locals the knowledge of the Han Dynasty in building water conservancy projects, which saved a batch of the crops and the pomegranate trees there. When he returned home, Zhang Qian also brought some pomegranate seeds back with him. From that time on, pomegranates have grown in Shanglin Garden and in the foothills of Mount Lishan in Chang'an.
“Pomegranate trees are a wonder of the world, bearing famous fruits,” the writer Pan Yue wrote in Anshiliu fu (”Pomegranate Rhapsody'') during the Western Jin Dynasty (AD 265–316). During the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 429–581), He Sizheng left behind the lines “Wind sweeps across the Grape Belt, and the sun shines on the pomegranate dress,” using the fruit to allude to the woman he loved. At that time, pomegranates were considered auspicious, symbolising familial prosperity and blessings, as evident in the saying “Thousands of chambers under the same membrane, and one thousand identical seeds.” In the Northern Qi Dynasty (AD 550–577), when Gao Yanzong (also known as Prince Ande) took Li Zu's daughter as his concubine, Emperor Wenxuan, paid her family a visit. He was given two pomegranates by the mistress. Emperor Wenxuan was baffled. Wei Shou, the prince's tutor, explained that: “Pomegranates contain multiple seeds. The prince's in-laws are wishing him fertility and posterity with two pomegranates.” The emperor became very happy on hearing this. Since then, the custom of giving pomegranates to newlyweds was established in China.
In the Tang Dynasty, the custom of presenting pomegranates at weddings became popular. In the Song Dynasty, the number of seeds in the pomegranate was counted to foretell the number of successful candidates in the imperial examination. Over time, the phrase “pomegranates indicate success in the imperial examination” spread far and wide, as a token of good wishes. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, a custom emerged whereby “pomegranates and mooncakes would be sacrificed to immortals on the 15th day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar,” as the fruit came into season around the Mid-autumn Festival.
Pomegranates have been cultivated in Beijing for 1,000 years. In 2015, a group of Liao Dynasty tombs was discovered in Sanhezhuang Village, Huangcun Town, Daxing District. Inside, a mural featuring pomegranates was found. In the centre of the
picture, there is a bowl filled with the fruit, proving that they were present in the capital nearly 1,000 years ago. During the Yuan Dynasty, pomegranates trees planted by the Hui people near Dadu (now Beijing) formed a street. First called by the local residents as “Shiliu Street,” and then “Liu Street,” its name later evolved to the present-day “Niu Street.”
During the Ming Dynasty, pomegranate cultivation increased in Beijing. By the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722) in the Qing Dynasty, the fruit could be found all over the city. Shiliuzhuang (lit. Pomegranate Village) outside Yongding Gate is the oldest pomegranate orchard in Beijing. Its description in an epitaph dating from the Jiajing Reign in the Ming Dynasty accords with the location and name of present-day Shiliuzhuang in Fengtai District. Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, the grandmother of Emperor Kangxi, was especially fond of pomegranates. Therefore, after he acceded to the throne, Emperor Kangxi would personally pick a few large, red pomegranates as a gift to her, as a token of filial piety. In addition, he selected a special plot in the Changchun Garden where he had dozens of pomegranate trees planted, mostly the top “three-white” variety.
Pomegranates are also closely related to Chinese clothing culture. In Wuqi qu (“To the Tune of Setting Sun”), Emperor Yuan of Liang wrote in the Southern Dynasty (AD 420–589) of a “pomegranate skirt with a hibiscus belt.” Empress Wu Zetian also left the famous verse, “My tears over no message from you soaked my pomegranate dress; you may open the case and see for yourself.” During ancient times, women enjoyed to wearing skirts coloured “pomegranate red” with pigments extracted from the flowers of the fruit. For that reason, red skirts also became known as “pomegranate skirts.” Over time, this item of clothing became synonymous with young woman in ancient times.
Pomegranate flowers are a bright and fiery red, while the fruit is plump and roundish, and its seed pods are translucent. As such, pomegranates symbolise festivity, bumper harvests and peaceful families for Chinese people, and so are considered to bring luck, happiness and prosperity. In autumn, the red pomegranates hanging from branches in gardens present a unique sight in Beijing. There are two reasons Beijingers particularly adore this fruit. First, pomegranate flowers are mostly red. In the fifth month on the lunar calendar, when pomegranates blossom, the trees are laden with fragrant flowers. Therefore, this month is referred to as the “Pomegranate Month.” Second, pomegranates are an excellent seasonal fruit, known for being sweet and sour, and with a lingering taste. For Beijingers, “three-white” pomegranates are considered the best variety. Also known as “snow sugar pomegranates,” they are named after the distinct white petals, white peels and white arils.
Loyal Orange Trees
“Remember that the season with yellow lemons and green oranges is the most picturesque” is a much-quoted verse from “To Liu Jingwen,” a poem written by Su Shi the great Song Dynasty poet. China began to cultivate oranges 4,000 years ago. In the Shangshu (Book of Documents) it states, “In Weiyang Prefecture of Huaihai... tangelos were used as imperial tributes.” In the Xia Dynasty, oranges produced in Jiangsu, Anhui, Jiangxi and Hunan were classified as tributes. Finally, in the Han Feizi, tangelos (a hybrid of the tangerine and grapefruit) are described as “sweet tasting and aromatic.”
Although they first originated in southern China, oranges were brought to Chang'an, the capital of the Han and Tang dynasties as tributes, and to the Forbidden City in Beijing during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and so they are well-known to northerners. The succulent fruit prompted people to try transplanting the fruit tree from the south to the north, but the results were invariably disappointing. Therefore it was concluded that: “Grown in regions to south of the Huaihe River, oranges are sweet; grown to the north, they are bitter and sour.” In the eyes of the poet Qu Yuan, the fruit symbolised loyalty, as seen in one of his lines which said, “As a virtuous tree of the earth, the orange stays loyal to its homeland. It refuses transplantation to the north, for love of its motherland.”
During the Qin and Han dynasties, the cultivation of oranges developed further. In Lü’s Spring and Autumn Records, one account states that “of the best quality fruits, there are the oranges of Jiangfu and the grapefruit of Yunmeng.” In Records of the Grand Historian, it is written, “The State of Qi abounds in fish and salt, while the State of Chu abounds in orange groves,” showing that oranges were extensively grown in southern China and on a par with fish and salt production in the State of Qi.
During the Southern and Northern dynasties, two books about oranges emerged: Xiangyang qijiuzhuan (Old Passage of Xiangyang) and Jingzhou ji (Records of Jingzhou). Contained in the former is a story which goes: During the late-han Dynasty, Li Heng the governor of Danyang, planted more than 1,000 orange trees as a legacy for his wife and children who were not skilled at managing the house. On his deathbed, he told his son, “I have 1,000 wooden slaves in my hometown. They won't ask for food or clothing, but they will yield enough to keep you fed.” The “wooden slaves” in the passage are orange trees. From then on, this has become a humorous nickname for orange trees.
The transplanting of orange trees to North China was recorded during the Tang Dynasty. Duan Chengshi mentioned in Youyang zazu (Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang) that a batch of the trees were planted in the palace in the 10th year of Tianbao during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong during the Tang Dynasty, 150 of which bore fruit identical to the tribute oranges from Jiangnan and Shudao. However, the fruit continued to be mainly produced in the Yangtze River Basin and regions to its south. Poets during the Tang Dynasty were especially fond of oranges. Cen Can wrote the lines, “The courtyard is exclusively filled with orange trees, while half of the garden is planted with tea.” Wei Yingwu also wrote, “On learning that you were longing for oranges on your sickbed, I picked you a few, only to find them green and sour.”
During the reign of Emperor Yongle (1403–1424) of the Ming Dynasty, an eminent Japanese monk passed through Wenzhou—the hometown of oranges— after visiting Guoqing Temple in Tiantai, China. From there he brought orange trees back to Kagoshima in Kyushu, Japan. After grafting and improvement, a new seedless variety was cultivated. Known as unshiu in Japan, and Wenzhou Tangerines in China, the variety was widely planted across Japan and exported overseas, later spreading to Europe and the Americas. This fruit from the south of the Huaihe River and exported overseas is an “auspicious fruit,” and a gift from the Chinese people to the world.
Books written in Chinese about oranges also spread to all corners of the world. The most important of those is Yongjia julu (“Yongjia Record on Oranges”) written by Han Yanzhi in the Southern Song Dynasty. Han Yanzhi was the son of Han Shizhong, a famous general. He was born in Yan'an, Shaanxi, where oranges originally did not grow. At the age of 48, he was appointed to office in Wenzhou, an important citrus producing area. After tasting the fruit, he became fond of orange trees and wrote the monograph in the Chunxi Period.
During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, oranges became a primary means of livelihood for many farmers. In the Qing Dynasty, Wu Zhenfang recorded in Lingnan zaji (Miscellaneous Notes of Lingnan) that “Arable land is scarce in Guangzhou, and the people there mainly grow oranges for economic benefits.” According to Nanfeng fengsu wuhuzhi (“Annals of Customs and Produces in Nanfeng”), a monograph written during the Qing Dynasty, the entire Nanfeng Villages in Jiangxi “did not till land, but instead specialised in cultivating oranges.”
Many foods made of oranges are mentioned in the Qing Dynasty novel Rulin waishi ( The Scholars) by Wu Jingzi. The character Du Shenqing, who was particularly fastidious about food and clothing, would treat his guests with “the best orange wine from Yongning Brewery,” accompanied with seasonal cherries, bamboo shoots and fresh fish. In another case, Mrs. Wang who liked to flaunt her extravagance, would have orange cakes, longans and lotus seeds as snacks every day. She would also stuff tea into hollowed-out oranges and grapefruit, and close the peel. After some time, the orange peel became wrinkled and dried out, while the tea took on the aroma of the fruit.
In his prose work A’chang yu shanhaijing (A’chang and Classic of Mountains and Seas), the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881– 1936) recalled how his wet nurse requested he eat a lucky orange on the morning of the first day of the first lunar month. “This way, you'll have luck all year round and everything will go smoothly...”
Autumn evenings in Beijing are filled with the fragrance of seasonal fruits. During this golden season when families reunite, it is pure bliss to sit around with one's family, sip tea beneath the full moon, shell a few sugar-roasted chestnuts, eat a few large red hawthorns and share some pomegranates. One may as well peel open a lucky orange like Lu Xun and offer some up to the moon as a blessing, as thanks for the silver rays from the god of the moon.
Sugar-roasted chestnuts, a popular snack in Beijing during autumn and winter
Candied hawthorns not only taste good but also look good.
Longan (guiyuan) can be found as far back as the Han Dynasty over 2,000 years ago.
The period around Mid-autumn Festival is the season when jujubes ripen.
Persimmons are sweet and juicy when eaten raw, and take on additional flavours after being dried.
Walnuts not only play a part in traditional Chinese medicine but are also considered curios.
Pomegranates are a seasonal fruit, known for being sweet and sour.
A snack with dried apricots and persimmons and cooked lotus root slices soaked in hot water
Oranges are a popular fruit in Beijing.