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楊萬里《四月八日嘗新荔枝》“Tasting early lychees on the eighth day of the fourth month” by Yang Wanli

一㸃胭脂染蔕

忽然紅徧緑衣

紫璚骨骼丁香瘦,

白雪肌膚午暑

掌上氷丸那忍觸,

樽前風味獨難

老饕要啖三百顆,

却怕甘寒凍斷[1]


A shade of rouge tints the side of the calyx,

At once the green coat is covered in red.

The purple jade bone is slender as a clove;

The snow-white skin cools the midday heat.

An icy ball in the palm – who could bear to touch it?

The distinctive flavour next to the wine cup – nothing is more unforgettable.

The gourmand intends to eat three hundred of them,

Yet fears the sweet coldness would freeze off his intestines. [2]


* From Yang Wanli, Chengzhai ji 誠齋集, Yingyin Wenyuange Siku Quanshu 景印文淵閣四庫全書 edition (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987), vol. 1160, 15.16a.

[1] Red characters rhyme.

[2] In Chinese literature, duanchang 斷腸 (breaking intestines/broken intestines) is often used for a lover with a broken heart. But here Yang Wanli fears that excessive eating of lychees would freeze his intestines to the point that they could break.

 

Attesting to the truth of the proverb “si yue ba, lengsi laomuya 四月八,冷死老母鴨” (on the eighth day of the fourth month - an old hen duck can be frozen to death), we had a few fresh days with pouring rain a week ago.[3] Freshness is of course welcome during a period of consistent heat (above 30 degree Celsius), but the cold air overdid it slightly at a certain point, and I had to stretch the sleeves of my T-shirt. Nevertheless, I really had no time to complain about the freshness, for the heat was back all too soon.


I was a bit disappointed that my attempts to find poems about the temperature shifts in the fourth month had hardly yielded any interesting fruit. The eighth day of the fourth month is Buddha’s birthday, and the poets from the past were clearly more concerned with the Buddha instead of the poor duck.


And all of a sudden, I came across Yang Wanli’s 楊萬里 (1127-1206) poem that reminded me of yet another thing associated with early fourth month: eating lychees (Litchi chinensis). The poem translated above is not dated, but it was perhaps written after Wang Wanli took up his position in Guangdong, where lychees were produced in abundance. The first two lines clearly refer to the ripening of the fruits in the tree, which might come from the poet’s on-site observation.


Whereas the standard written form of the word “lychee” is lizhi 荔枝 in modern Mandarin, the same word is alternatively written as lizhi 荔支, lizhi 離支 or lizhi 離枝 in pre-modern texts. Li Shizhen’s 李時珍 (1518-1593) commentary suggests that the lychee was perhaps named after its nature, in that the fruit would lose its charm as soon as it leaves (li 離) the branch (zhi 支/枝).[4] Bai Juyi 白居易 (772-846), in his famous preface to a painting of lychee, states that “if [the fruit] leaves its branch, it loses its colour in one day, its fragrance in two days, its flavour in three days – after four or five days, nothing is left.” He has also noted (surely out of goodwill without the slightest intention to show off) that he commissioned the painting and wrote this inscription specifically for those who don’t know of the lychee at all and those who have never had the pleasure of enjoying it within those crucial three days.[5]


Indeed, keeping the fruit fresh after harvest was a tricky thing in the old days, which made fresh lychees a real luxury. Yang Yuhuan’s 楊玉環 (or Consort Yang 楊貴妃, 719-756) decadent lifestyle is marked by her having fresh lychees delivered via imperial express service.[6] When Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101) was exiled to Huizhou in Guangdong, he wrote a quatrain to say that he would love to settle in the bleak land in the South of the Ridges so that he could eat three hundred lychees every day.[7] Yang Wanli’s desire to eat “three hundred” lychees is a clear echo of Su Shi’s lines.


Now that I’m a native of the South of the Ridges, having fresh lychees has never really been an issue for me. I also had many lychees of the new season on the eighth day of the fourth month this year. Thanks to the invention of the refrigerator, I didn’t have to rush to finish them. The flavour kept well at 1 degree Celsius, and I did take them off from the long branches that they came with. Since Yang Wanli addresses the coldness of the fruit several times in the poem, I suppose certain measures were taken to keep the fruits at relatively low temperature.


Instead of having fresh lychees, my real problem is that I’ve always preferred longyan 龍眼 (literally “dragon eye”, Dimocarpus longan), another local fruit that belongs to the same family (Sapindaceae) as lychees but ripens a bit later. As a result, I’ve never really sympathised with the lychee excitement in history and can’t help but think its fame is more of a result of celebrity effect. The scent and flavour of lychees are a bit excessive for me.


That being said, there is of course no need to decide on a champion of fruits. It’s good to have more than one type of delicious fruit, and I love seeing people find their delights in the southern China that used to be described in an unfavourable light. When Bai Juyi wrote his eulogy to lychees, he only knew of the lychee in Zhongzhou 忠州 (in modern Chongqing), a relatively minor place of lychee production. If he had had the opportunity, I believe he would also have loved to join the lychee party with Su Shi and Yang Wanli.

[3] The eighth day of the fourth month of the traditional lunisolar calendar corresponds to 19 May this year. [4] See Li Shizhen, Bencao gangmu 本草綱目: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=52846&page=9. [5] See Bai Juyi, Baishi Changqing ji 白氏長慶集: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=78089&page=155. [6] See Ouyang Xiu, Xin Tanghsu 新唐書: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=4543&page=70. [7] See Su Shi, Dongpo quanji 東坡全集: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=3923&page=140.


"Lizhi tu" 荔枝圖 (Painting of lychees) by Emperor Huizong of Song 宋徽宗 (1082-1135, ruling 1100-1126).

Picture credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei

Album leaf by Jiang Tingxi's 蔣廷錫 (1669-1732)

Picture credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei

 

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