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屈大均《佛手柑(其七)》“The Buddha-hand Citron (No. 7)” by Qu Dajun

初疑天女手,

一一散花

多少縫裳者,

摻摻總不

看來非橘柚,

最好伴琴

靜似幽蘭吐,

隨風滿玉[1]


[I] first thought it was the hand of the heavenly lady

Who had just scattered flowers, one by one.[2]

How many needle-girls there are,

[Yet their] grace is no match after all.

[It] doesn’t look like an orange or a pomelo,

And is best in company with the zither and books.

Laying still, [it smells] like the breath of solitary orchids that

With the wind fills the jade staircase.


* From Qu Dajun 屈大均, Wengshan shiwai 翁山詩外, “Wuyanlü” 言律, 67b.

[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] The first two lines allude to a popular image of tiannü sanhua 天女散花 (the heavenly lady scattering flowers) originating from a Buddhist story; see http://tripitaka.cbeta.org/T14n0475_002 (0547c23).


 

When I visited the night market in the Old Town of Jinhua with my local friend, we came across a small stall selling the Buddha-hand citron (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis, AKA fingered citron) that I had only seen in paintings. My friend bought me two of them as a souvenir and told me I can just leave them in the room as an ornament and a source of fragrance. I was intrigued by their extraordinary look and liked the pleasant smell that is noticeably more intense than other citrus fruits.


(Left) By Jiang Tingxi 蔣廷錫 (1669-1732)

(Right) By Wang Tubin 王圖柄 (1668-1743)


Although I had never had the opportunity to see a real Buddha-hand citron before I visited Jinhua, it seems this fruit is planted in many parts of southern China. There are several types of Buddha-hand citron in different regions. The two I got are the jin foshou 金佛手 (golden Buddha’s hand) variant, a local product of Zhejiang, especially Jinhua. The poem translated above, however, is probably talking about the Buddha-hand citron in Guangdong, where the poet was based most of his life.


Photos taken three weeks after I got them in Jinhua


Qu Dajun 屈大均 (1630-1696) is known as an eminent scholar of the local history of Guangdong and a Ming loyalist who became a monk at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty. I didn’t know he was greatly fond of the Buddha-hand citron and dedicated as many as twenty poems to it. As a result, he covered many more aspects of the fruit and relevant scenes than other poets. On many occasions, he celebrated its shape, colour, fragrance, taste, religious and cultural significance, etc. Buddhist associations and the image of elegant long fingers of a graceful female are very common in poems about this fruit. On top of that, Qu Dajun also associated it with his literati identity as he presented it along with the seven-string zither, books, and orchids here.


More interestingly, Qu Dajun’s poems also touch upon the harvest of the citron, the preparation of candied fruit, and, loveliest of all, how comfortable it is to use the fruit as a scratcher: “For stroking and scratching you are most needed / [as] the fist curve is appropriate for people (抑搔須汝甚,拳曲與人宜).”[3] Of course I tried it out and liked the idea, for the “fingers” of the fruit were indeed much more comfortable than the stiff ones of a bamboo scratcher. Perhaps the only problem is that the fresh “fingers” only keep for a few weeks.


When I was in Jinhua, I was only introduced to the ornamental function of the Buddha-hand citron, but now I’m thinking about tasting it as my next adventure. The Buddha-hand citron has been cultivated and used for medical purposes for centuries. Now the candied fruit and dried slices are easily available in online stores. I must say some options of the candied version look really special. For instance, the laoxianghuang 老香黃 (old fragrant yellow) from Chaozhou looks completely black, and it is said that they keep for over a decade, the older the tastier. It would be interesting to see how far this local speciality can be traced back, as Qu Dajun, a big fan of the Buddha-hand citron and a specialist on Guangdong history and culture, did not mention this Chaozhou recipe at all. As for my new adventure, I guess I’ll start with the less radical options...


[3] Qu Dajun, Wengshan shiwai 翁山詩外, “Wuyanlü”, 68b.

(Picture from: https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E8%80%81%E9%A6%99%E9%BB%84/10327565)

 

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