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March 1, 2017

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Intrepid harbinger of spring brightens dreary winter days

IF there was ever a flower aptly named, it is the wintersweet. For centuries, Chinese poets and artists have glorified the only blossom brave enough to endure freezing temperatures and snow, the only flower that takes a bow when the landscape is devoid of color and the only flower that wills the winter air with a sweet scent.

Wintersweet starts to blossom around the time of the Chinese Lunar New Year and lasts into mid-March. For people tired of the cold and gray of winter, it provides a colorful, scented reminder of spring to come. Many families keep a few branches of the flower in a vase during the Spring Festival to brighten rooms and bring good luck.

Wintersweet, which is endemic to China, is scientifically a member of the genus Chimonanthus in the Calycanthacea family. It was domesticated during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and has come to be called “Chinese plum” though it is not a member of the prunus genus. When the plant was introduced into Japan, it was called Japanese allspice. The flowering tree was later introduced to Europe.

Shanghai and the nearby cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou have some of the most popular wintersweet gardens, where ancient emperors and literati congregated. The flower is referenced in classic novels like “A Dream of Red Mansions.”

Many ancient Chinese poets and painters followed the cultural tradition of using flowers and plants as metaphors for saints or spirits they aspire to emulate.

The lotus, for example, is often associated with integrity because its beauty overcomes the plant’s muddy roots. Ramrod bamboo symbolizes the belief that a saint never bends.

Wintersweet has been celebrated in rhymes and paintings, from poems in “Shi Jing” or “Book of Odes” 2,500 years ago to writings by Chairman Mao Zedong and Marshal Chen Yi in modern history. As a harbinger of spring, it symbolizes pride and the will to overcome obstacles.

The obsession with wintersweet was especially strong during the Song Dynasty, when intellectuals were well-respected and many poets also served as high-level government officials. However, many of those scholarly officials routinely fell in and out of favor at court. When they were banished, they wrote poems, and one of their favorite subjects was the wintersweet.

Chancellor Wang Anshi (1021-86), who attempted major reforms that caused ructions in the government of the time, was forced out of the imperial court several times during his career. During one of those banishments, he wrote poems about wintersweet, regaling the flower for “standing tall and solitary in the long dark winter.”

Wang Yifeng, a retired Shanghai teacher who visits Suzhou every winter to view the wintersweet, says he developed a passion for the flower after he left classroom teaching.

“It is so tiny and fragile, shivering in the wind,” he says, “and yet it endures through the worst time of the year and is not defeated even by snow. Just looking at the flower and smelling its unique scent makes me feel warm and happy during the dull winter.”

Taking a page from ancient Chinese novels, Wang likes to drink tea or practice calligraphy amid the pink and white wintersweet blooms. He goes to Dengwei Mountain in suburban Suzhou to enjoy the plant. It is one of the earliest recorded areas for wintersweet gardens. The mountain is about a one-hour drive from downtown Suzhou, and a shuttle bus runs during the wintersweet season.

In fact, the phrase “exploring wintersweet in Dengwei” is often seen in ancient poems and records. In many tourist books, visiting Dengwei Mountain during wintersweet season is listed as a must-do.

In the classic novel “A Dream of Red Mansions,” some of the main characters also mentioned collecting snow from the tiny wintersweet flowers to make tea. It was an arduous task, but the tea carried the scent of the flowers and was considered a treat for aristocratic families.

In 1696, a high-level government official visited Dengwei and called it “the ocean of snow and scent” (Xiang Xue Hai) — a name that became so popular that it is now used for the tourist site.

The mountain was named after General Deng Yu (AD 2-58) who helped the emperor found the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) and once lived as a recluse at the mountain. A temple worshipping the general is set amid the wintersweet gardens, which are famous for four pine trees said to have been planted by the general more than 2,000 years ago.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) and his grandson Emperor Qianlong (1711-99) both visited the mountain in winter during regional inspection tours from the court in Beijing. The two emperors wrote 19 poems during their nine visits, of which 13 express admiration for the beauty of wintersweet.

Suzhou and Hangzhou are traditionally known as “heaven on earth,” and Hangzhou is no less a good wintersweet appreciation spot than Suzhou.

While Dengwei Mountain is best known as a royal favorite, Solitary Hill by West Lake in Hangzhou is famous for the tale of the “Wintersweet Wife and Crane Son” by the poet Lin Bu (967-1028).

Lin was one of the most talented poets and intellectuals of his time, but he decided early in life to eschew opportunities to become a government official and instead lived as a recluse at Solitary Hill. He never married nor had children. Instead, Lin wrote poems, painted, planted wintersweet and kept cranes. He called wintersweet his wife and the cranes his sons.

Lin’s poem about the wintersweet describes how the shadows of the tilted tree branches were reflected in the lake in sparse shadows, and how the unique scent of the flower filled the air as the moon climbed. It is considered one of the best verses related to wintersweet.

The best wintersweet flowers are to blossom on branches that protrude horizontally or shoot out at angle from the tree, rather than those growing straight up. The best time of the day to appreciate the flower is dawn or dusk, the scenes that Lin described.

Solitary Hill, while less than 40 meters high, is widely known as the best spot along West Lake in the winter because of the wintersweet and the unobstructed views of the entire lake.


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