Lychee or Lizhi

31 01 2008

Lychee (荔枝 pinyin: lì zhī)

The Lychee (Litchi chinesis) is probably the best known of all Chinese fruit trees. It is extensively cultivated in south China, particularly in the provinces of Kwangtung, Kwangsi, Taiwan, Fukien, Szechwan and Yünnan.

The evergreen leaves are pinnate pairs of leathery leaflets and the tiny flowers are produced in terminal panicles in spring. These are followed by the round fruits which have a red brittle skin covered with rough tubercles and which ripen in summer. Each contains a single seed surrounded by white pulp. It has a sweet fragrance, flavorful and most delightful to eat. It is described more fully in the Nan-fang ts’ao-mu chuang, Ch’ün-fang-p’u and other classical botanical works and detailing its healthful benefits.

Although the Lychee have been cultivated in the south from earliest times, nevertheless, it was known in the north since the Han dynasty when Wu-Di (武帝 pinyin: wǔ dì, 140-87 B.C.) conquered the south. However, all attempts to have it grown in the north failed, because of the cold climate.

In Chinese, this fruit is most commonly and popularly called Li-zhi. However, it also has other names such as Huo-shan (火山 pintin: huǒ shān), Suan-zhi (酸枝 pinyin: suān zhī). In the classical work, Shang-lin-fu(上林赋 pinyin: shàng lín fù), it is related that the alternate name, Li-zhi (离枝 pinyin: lí zhī), meaning leaving its branches, is so-called because once the fruit is picked it deteriorates quickly. Therefore, it is always harvested with their stalks attached. In this same classical work, it also notes that: On the first day, its color changes, the second day, its fragrance diminishes, the third day, the flavor changes and on the fourth, fifth and following days, its color, fragrance and flavor all are but gone.

During the Tang dynasty (唐朝 pinyin: táng cháo, 618-906 A.D.), the Lychee was celebrated and treated as a delightfully charming exotic in poetry and art and enjoyed great prestige. The Lychee was so greatly favored by Emperor Xuan-zong’s (玄宗 pinyin: xuán zōng) concubine, Yang gui-fei (杨贵妃 pinyin: yáng guì fēi), that he had couriers on speedy horses from Szechwan (四川 pinyin: sì chuān) province to the capital of Chang-an (长安 pinyin: cháng ān). The Tang poet, Du-mu (杜牧 pinyin: dù mù), in a poem entitled Guo-Hua-Qing-Gong (过华清宫三绝 pinyin: guò huá qīng gōng sān jué) or Passing the Hua-Qing palace, describes this situation with the following lines: A speedy horse beating the dust to gain a laughter of his favorite concubine Yet who is aware that it is of a delivery of Lychee that was brought.

In the Song dynasty (宋朝 pinyin: sòng cháo, 960-1260 A.D.), not only was the Lychee celebrated in literature, such as by the famous poet, Su-shi (蘇軾 pinyin: sū shì), but also the first monograph on any fruit tree written by any Chinese writer appeared. This was entitled, Li-zhi-pu (荔枝谱 pinyin: lì zhī pǔ) and written in 1059 A.D. by the famous scholar/official Cai-xiang (蔡襄 pinyin: cài xiāng), and describes over 30 varieties of Lychee.

In the standard work on agriculture, Nung-chêng ch’üan-shu, quoting from another source, Chia sang t’ung-ch’üeh, it notes that, The [Lychee] tree has a long life, it could survive over 400 years and still bear fruit.

The Lychee became an auspicious symbol for two major reasons. First the term Li-zhi is linguistically similar in pronunciation as Li-zi (利子 pinyin:<lì zǐ), meaning interest in money as also as to have an heir (son). This could be symbolize with a single painting of the branch of a Lychee. Alternatively, it could be combined with the Jujube (棗 pinyin: zǎo) forming the rebus, Zao-li-zi, to establish an heir quickly. The second reason is that the term Li (荔) is a homonym for the word Li (利), meaning intelligent, sharp or cleaver, so that combined with a water caltrop (菱 pinyin: líng) and scallion (蔥 pinyin: cōng), or even a length of lotus root, it forms the rebus, Cong-ming-ling-li or to be intelligent, clever and bright. The Lychee combined with the Ling-zhi fungus would form the rebus, Ling-li-bu-ji-chi (伶俐不及癡 pinyin: líng lì bù jí chī) or to be bright, clever and intelligent without being silly or an idiot.

The Lychee was greatly imbued into Chinese symbolism and severed as an art motif in paintings as well as on porcelain and ceramics as well as in various arts and crafts. The dried Lychee is an important item for the marriage bed as, like the chestnut, it is a symbol of the birth of a son.

By William Hu and David Lei


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