Chinese Classical Literature Botanical Garden

Tags: garden | plant

Since Shi-Jin and Chu-Ci, over 300 varieties of plant life have been mentioned in historical poems, songs and novels. There are 253 species of plant mentioned in the Journey to the West (Xi-You-Ji) which is the largest number. The Dream of the Red Chamber (Hung-Lou Meng) had 240 species; Shi-Jin had 135 species; Chu-Ci had 99 species. In these articles, the most popular plant is willow (Salix babylonica L.), followed by pine tree, cinnamon, tea tree, lotus, bamboo, plum, peach tree, reed, orchid (Eupatorium), etc. Other plants which appeared often in classic literature are also planted in this Garden. Botany and literature are intimately entwined and this garden provides a way to communicate with philologists through knowledge of these plants’ shape, botanical idiosyncrasies and deeper inner meaning.

Belamcanda chinensis(L.)DC. Dietes grandiflora DC.

◎Shi, Ci, Ge, Fu with plants

Chinese literary history, the form of content and style started from Shi-Jin and Chu-Ci, through Han-Fu, Tang-Shi (Poetry), Song-Ci, Yuan-Qu, Ming / Ching-ShiGe and continuing on. Ancient literature, national heritage and characteristic cultures had passed on and will carry on to posterity. Botany is related to ancestral life of that period; poetic content used landscapes, animals and plants to compress the feeling or thought through veridicality, metaphor or randomness. Knowing more about the plants appearing in literature can assist in the exploration of ancestral applied science, to appreciate the deep emotions that inspired the poet to write this piece is to truly feel the interaction between our ancestors and the awe-inspiring aspects of nature. To study classic literature, first, it is important to know the shape and meaning of the plants represented in the literature. Only then can we appreciate the moment of creation from within the author. For example: One of Wang Wei Poems – The Song at Weicheng: “A morning-rain has settled the dust in Weicheng; Willows are green again in the tavern dooryard… Wait till we empty one more cup, West of Yang Gate there’ll be no old friends.” Because Liu (Willow tree) and Liu (To persuade someone to stay) have the same pronunciation, ancestors used a broken willow branch as gift away. Here author, Wang Wei, used a willow tree beside the traveller’s inn to express the feeling of trying to persuade a friend not to leave.

◎The plant in Tang-Shi (Poetry)

In Chinese literature, the Tang dynasty is considered the golden age of Chinese poetry, a period of general peace and prosperity ending in a decline. It had remarkable influence on poetic literature. Until today, most famous of popular composed lines are from the poems of the Tang dynasty. Tropology was frequent usage in Tang-Shi that plants were the image of contemporary urban life, the example of the “A Song of Unending Sorrow” by Bai Juyi: “And the tear-drops drifting down her sad white face, Were like spring raindrops on pear blossoms.” The purity of the pear blossom is used in this instance, as a mechanism to describe the smooth white skin of the Imperial concubine-Yang. Also the rain in spring on the blossom of the pear accentuated her hopeless delicate position in “The men of the army stopped, not one of them would stir. Till under their horses’ hoofs they might trample those moth-eyebrows…” Du Mu wrote “She is slim and supple and not yet fourteen, the young spring-tip of a cardamom-spray.” He complimented the young lady by the blossom in bud which made a historical idiomatic phrase- Dou-Kou-Nian-Hua which is used as a term to describe girls in their teens. Beside, one of the popular poems of Wang Wei: “When brothers carry dogwood up the mountain, each of them a branch and my branch missing.” He imaged branch to express yearning and passed on the tradition of Double Ninth Festival.

◎Chaptered Novels and Plants

Beside Shi, Ci, Ge and Fu, there are many well-know chaptered novels in Chinese literature. For example, there are the “Four remarkable books” of Romance of Three Kingdoms (San-Guo-Yan-Yi), Water Margin (Shui-Hu), The Journey to the West (Xi-You-Ji), and The Golden Lotus (Jing-Pin-Mei), as well as The Scholars (Ru-Lin Wai-Shih), The Dream of the Red Chamber (Hung-Lou Meng), Travels of Lao Tsan, etc. These all had creative contents, vivid traditional legends with fruitful imagination and numerous plants appeared. Most readers simply skim through and have no real idea of the plant’s meaning or barely recognize the plant but not the true literary meaning behind. For example on one of Guan-Gong’s (Guan Yu, Lord Guan) stories – “Treatment of Poisoned Arm” People roughly knew Lord Guan was wounded by a poisonous arrow which struck in his right arm but no one knew the type of poison. In chapter 75 of "Romance of Three Kingdoms," Hua Tuo said: This is an arrow wound and the head was poisoned by Aconitum…” Aconitum is a virulent herb in genus of Ranunculaceae and has purple flower. Therefore, preparing botanical common knowledge to be able to classify the plants can help us to follow the themes and sub-themes in classical novels.

◎Plants in Dream of the Red Chamber (Hung-Lou Meng)

The author of Dream of the Red Chamber (Hung-Lou Meng), Tsao Hsueh-Chin (Xueqin Cao), was a great realistic novelist with rich experiences. There are 240 plant species mentioned in the 120 chapters of the novel; these plants are also found in Shi-Jin, Chu-Ci, Chao-Ming literature (Wu-Du Ode, Shu-Du Ode, Shang-Ling Ode) and The Golden Lotus (Jing-Pin-Mei). There are disagreement regarding the author of the first 80 chapters and the last 40. Counting the numbers of various plant species appearing in the chapters shows: the first to 40th chapters had an average of 10.9 plant species, the 41st to 80th chapters had an average of 10.5 plant species, and the 81st to 120th chapters had an average of 3.8 plant species. Therefore, it is clear to see that an author wrote the first 80 chapters and the last 40 chapters had a different style in writing. In addition, there were many species of tropical and subtropical plants such as Ornamental red banana (Musa uranascopos), Mottled bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides), Japan Pollia (Pollia japonica Thunb), Du-Wei, Creeping fig (Ficus pumila Linn) and Nutmeg (Myristica cagayanensis Merr) which pointed out that the Da-Guan Garden should be located in Suzhou or Nanjing and not in Beijing as many readers claimed. Studying the plants which appeared in the story could provide an important aspect into studying Dream of the Red Chamber. 

Lonicera japonica Thunb Proiphys amboinensis Herb.
Quisqualis indica Linn. Quisqualis indica Linn.

Rosa multiflora Thunb.

  Campsis grandiflora (Thunb.) K. Schum.


Taipei Botanical Garden (TPBG) , Taiwan Forestry Research Institute.