Beijing (English)

The Persimmon: Symbol of Good Wishes

- Translated by Shi Wei Edited by Darren Lu

Persimmon trees have been cultivated in China for more than 1,000 years. In China, the persimmon is not only a delicious fruit, but also an auspicious symbol.

First, longevity; second, large shade; third, free of bird nests; fourth, free of pests; fifth, frosted leaves to play with; sixth, edible fruits; seventh, broad leaves as pages of books.” Those are the “seven virtues “of the persimmon, summarised in Erya, the first surviving Chinese dictionary. In China, the persimmon is not only a delicious fruit, but also an auspicious symbol. The persimmon is round with smooth skin, resembling the ruyi (an S-shaped ornamental object) worn by imperial nobles. Because the word persimmon is pronounced shi in Chinese, a homophone for the word for things, persimmons imply “things go smoothly.” The pursuit of good luck and happiness is a universal wish, making the persimmon a highly praised fruit that has become a mascot for ordinary households.

Since ancient times, the Chinese people have been skilled at depicting the four seasons through ordinary scenery and objects. Persimmons can be written into poetry and depicted in paintings, winning them the favour of the literati. Many people project their feelings onto certain plants and animals and express their feelings through shapes and pictures, conveying their good wishes through homonyms and symbolism. Walking into an ordinary household in Beijing, pictures of persimmons are occasional­ly visible hanging on the walls. Two persimmons together indicates “things go smoothly.”a mixture of persimmons and peaches has the harmonic connotatio­n of everything going as expected; the combinatio­n of five persimmons and Chinese flowering apples implies both longevity and the happiness of an extended family reunion. In autumn, persimmons can be found in Beijing's streets and traditiona­l gardens. These persimmons are ripe and mouth-watering, and their stout branches and lush leaves frame a scene of autumn and the lively harvest atmosphere.

After the golden autumn comes the traditiona­l Chinese solar term Frost's Descent. Chinese people customaril­y eat persimmons during this time of the year. During Frost's Descent, the weather gradually turns cold, and the first frost comes into sight. An old saying goes, “Persimmons covered with frost are as red as fire.” Persimmons are generally ripe and taste the best around Frost's Descent , with thin skin, fresh flesh and high nutritiona­l value. Every part of the persimmon is highly useful. The persimmon's calyx and leaves are very valuable medicinal herbs. According to folk stories, red persimmons picked at the first frost once saved the life of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (reign: 1368–1399). Eating persimmons can also help protect against the cold, making eating persimmons a folk custom during Frost's Descent.

The delicious persimmon is not only popular with human beings, but also a favourite of most birds. In autumn, after the frost descends, birds enjoy the last rays of the autumn sun on the treetops as winter approaches. When they chance upon a persimmon tree, the birds perch on top and eat the red persimmons. After a big meal, they chirp cheerfully. The elderly people under the trees have forgotten that when magpies eat persimmons, the juice drips down and stains their clothes. They smile happily, explaining that this is called “Happy magpies eating persimmons” and symbolises “the coming of numerous happy things.” After helping themselves to the persimmons, the magpies diligently catch pests in the trees, safeguardi­ng the next year's persimmon harvest. Humans and nature live in harmony, bringing a good harvest year after year with endless prosperity and happiness. As an old saying goes, while picking persimmons, people must “leave some persimmons to the magpies.” Walking through the streets of Beijing after the persimmon leaves have fallen off, a few remaining ripe persimmons can always be seen on the branches, reserved specifical­ly for the birds.

Persimmon trees have been cultivated in China for more than a thousand years. Globally, persimmons are mainly grown in China, Japan, South Korea and Brazil. The Japanese love persimmons, and persimmon trees can be seen everywhere in rural Japan, where each household plants a few trees in their yard. Orange persimmons make up the Japanese countrysid­e's most beautiful scenery during autumn. Persimmon fruit and leaves are processed into a variety of foods, pastries, healthcare products,

beverages, daily necessitie­s and cultural specialiti­es. Because the persimmon represents longevity and good luck, it is an important traditiona­l decoration for the Japanese New Year. Strolling through the countrysid­e, a warm breeze caressing their faces, visitors can see a multitude of golden persimmons reflected against the sun. Japan also has the world's only persimmon museum, a guardian of persimmon culture recording hundreds of persimmon varieties.

The traditiona­l character of Beijingers is to never refuse any delicacies, a hobby that dates back thousands of years. Beijingers pay special attention to eating specific foods at different times of the year. The method of preparatio­n varies with the season. After Frost's Descent, fresh, ripe persimmons have a thin skin and soft flesh. They should be handled carefully and never pinched hard, as if the pulp will break out of the peel if shaken violently. Cross-cut with a knife, the skin can be peeled off in four directions, giving the persimmon the appearance of a blooming flower. The flesh can be scooped up with a small spoon to enjoy the sweet pulp. Occasional seeds, round and smooth as the tongue of a baby, taste crisp with each bite. Some Beijingers prefer to bite off a small piece of the skin and suck the pulp out of the persimmon, specifical­ly targeting the sweet juice and pulp. Frozen persimmons taste even better during winter because each bite comes with refreshing icy juice.

Dried persimmon is another popular autumn snack, made by air-drying fresh persimmons. North and South China have different methods for drying persimmons. Some people put a string through persimmons and hang them up, while others place them in bamboo baskets to dry. Persimmons that have dried in the sun absorb the full essence of nature while shedding their inherent coldness. According to the Suixi Garden Cookbook (Suixi ju yinshi pu): “The dried persimmon is sweet and mild, tonifying spleen and nourishing stomach, moisturisi­ng lungs and intestines, stopping bleeding and quenching the hunger, as well as curing various diseases. It is a good food for both the elders and the infants, so it is one of the best among fruits." Dried persimmons have many uses for Beijingers. In old Beijing, guozigan (“dried fruit tea”) is a kind of cool treat in the summer. Dictionary of Colloquial Expression­s in Beijing (Beijing tuyu cidian) details its production: “Dried fruit tea is a sweet and sour snack prepared mainly with dried persimmons and some preserved apricots by first soaking them in warm boiled water and then adding slices of fresh lotus roots. It serves as a cool summer snack in old Beijing.” Beijingers never stick to the methods described in books, and have their own fruit tea recipe. Dried persimmons are cut into small pieces, then stewed together with preserved apricots, black dates, pears and lotus roots. Served in a bowl, the amber persimmons, orange-red apricots, oily black dates, crystal clear pears and snow-white lotus roots, covered with sweet-scented osmanthus juice, are enough to make anyone salivate. After cooling in the refrigerat­or, the fruit tea tastes cool and crisp, sour and sweet and refreshing to the heart. No wonder the nine-year-old Emperor Tongzhi (reign: 1862– 1875) once ran out of the Forbidden City and went straight to the most famous stall in Beijing at Xi'an Gate for dried fruit tea. The snack's popularity is immediatel­y evident.

On any trip to Shaanxi, it would be a pity to miss the province's persimmon cakes. The persimmon cake, a traditiona­l delicacy, originated in Shaanxi. Improved by successive generation­s of gourmets, it has become a well-known snack in China. Shaanxi's persimmon cakes are made from fresh persimmons and flour, with sugar, walnuts and lard added in. The cakes are golden and soft; sweet, but not greasy, with an aromatic flavour. Connoisseu­rs in Beijing can ill-afford to miss this quality persimmon cake.

The persimmon is a loveable fruit. How could poets ignore it? During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), master poet Bai Juyi (AD 772–846) praised persimmon trees in his poem “A Letter to Wife” (“Jinei”): “We said goodbye to each other when the mulberry branch just turned green, but I cannot go home even when persimmon leaves turn half red now.”“zheng Qian,” from the New Book of the Tang Dynasty (Xin tangshu), has this account: “Qian, a good landscape painter and calligraph­er, had no paper to write and paint on, so he went to the Temple of Ci'en, where so many persimmon leaves were stored that they filled several houses. He took the leaves and used them as paper. Gradually he used them up.” Ever since this story was written, “writing on persimmon leaves” has become an idiom for diligence and hard work. Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo (1037–1101) led a life of refined pleasure with a sense of humour. Early one morning, Dongpo, who had gotten up late, went into his courtyard and picked up a persimmon leaf. Inspired by it, he wrote a poem entitled “Rise after Sleep” (“Shuiqi”) on the leaf. These anecdotes from the literati reveal that the persimmon is beautiful not only because it tastes delicious, but also because it is the inspiratio­n for literary works.

Just after Frost's Descent, persimmons appear everywhere on the streets of Beijing. The persimmon is by no means the rarest fruit on the city's fruit stands, but it brings surprise and cultural ambience to people, who might realise that it is nature's best gift at this time of year.

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