“Every Chinese New Year we buy chrysanthemums and display them in the house. That is what Guangdong people like to do. For us, the flowers are a symbol of spring and hope."
Vicky Liang Yinfeng was one of thousands of people from all over China who have come to Xiaolan, part of Zhongshan city in southern Guangdong, to see an exhibition of the flowers and celebrate a tradition more than 800 years old.
The 2015 Xiaolan Chrysanthemum Festival opened on November 23rd at the Longshan (Hill of the Dragon) Park and ran for two weeks. It attrac-ted tens of thousands who came to see hundreds of varieties of the flower, with different shapes and colours, and think about its many appearances in the culture, poetry and cuisine of China.
The organisers gave prizes of up to 10,000 yuan to the best variety; second and third received 8,000 and 6,000 yuan.
The flower first arrived here in 1274 brought by refugees from other parts of China. They found the soil fertile and the climate ideal for growing the flower.
Since then, it has become part of the town's history, culture and identity. It is grown not only as a flower but as a leaf for tea, to be used in traditional medicine and cooking and even as an insecticide. It is an important economic commodity.
It has become a symbol of the town. It held its first chrysanthemum festival in 1814 and organised them regularly ever since; the largest attendance was six million visitors.
Chrysanthemums were born in China, where they were first cultivated as a flowering herb in the 15th century BC. By 1630, over 500 varieties were recorded.
It became a symbol of different aspects of life, a sign of nobility and one of the "Four Gentlemen", together with the plum blossom, the orchid and bamboo.
It was exported to Japan, where it became a symbol of the Emperor. In 1869, a two-layered, 16-petal design was created as the symbol of the Imperial family and is still used today. It was also used at state-supported shrines.
In China, Japan and Korea, white chrysan-themums are a sign of grief and mourning; people wear them on their lapel when someone they love has passed away.
The English word is derived from two Greek words _ chrysos, meaning gold, and anthemon, meaning flower.
It arrived in Xiaolan in 1274, during the Southern Song dynasty. A group of refugees from the north arrived in the area bringing the plant. They found its earth to be fertile and the weather mild and wet ideal conditions for growing. They planted gardens of chrysanthemums.
In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), it became popular among local residents and its cultivation spread in the area. People came from nearby areas to see the flowers at the start of their blooming. One historian in the then capital Nanjing wrote about the beauty of the flowers in Xiaolan.
In the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the town began to sell the seeds to other places in China. It improved the quality and increased the number of varieties.
The chrysanthemum became an important commodity. Its yellow or white flowers were boiled to make a sweet form of tea that became popular in China. In Korea, it was used in the making of rice wine.
Its leaves were steamed or boiled and used as a form of vegetable in Chinese cuisine. The flowers were added to soups to improve the smell. In Japan, they were used as a garnish for sushi.
The flowers were also used as a pesticide. The flowers were crushed into a powder from which was extracted oleoresin. This attacks the nervous system of insects and prevents female mosquitoes from biting.
More recently, the flower has been used to make cakes and biscuits. In 1762, the growers set up the first society of chrysanthemum, bringing people from different villages together. They held competitions and exhibitions, to promote the growth and culture of the flower. They were displayed in temples and ancestral halls.
The first large-scale chrysanthemum festi-val was held in 1814. The organisers decided to hold the event every 60 years. The next two were held in 1874 and 1934.
In the Longshan Park is an exhibition hall run by the Society to Promote the Culture of the Xiaolan Chrysanthemum, which is responsible for the festivals and the management of the flower in the town.
The hall has photographs, documents and materials on the city's love affair with the flower. The exhibition in 1934 had 24 pavilions of different sizes, with 12 streets decorated with the flowers.
In 1959, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the new state, the town held an exhibition of its flowers. There were more than 4,000 pots and 100 different varieties. It ran for seven days and attracted 300,000 people.
During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards banned such large exhibitions. But people in the town continued to organise small-scale displays. After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, then the normal exhibitions resumed.
There is a photograph of Ho Yin, leader of Macao’s Chinese community for many years, visiting an exhibition. Next to him are men and women with blue cotton jackets and blue caps – the uniforms of the Maoist era. He was the father of Edmund Ho Hau Wah, the SAR’s first Chief Executive who held the office for 10 years after its return to China.
A medium-size exhibition was held in 1987 and a major one in 1994, 60 years after the one in 1934. This ran for 19 days with 10 square kilometres of flowers and 820,000 pots. They covered 31 streets; the event attracted six million people, a record. They included people from all over China, foreigners and overseas Chinese.
Since this event was held every 60 years, the organisers arranged performances by more than 20 local and visiting troupes and also held exhibitions on the development of Xiaolan and economic and trade events. The chrysanthemum has helped to put the town on the world map.
In May 2006, the State Council approved the addition of the Xiaolan Chrysanthemum Festival to the list of China’s national intangible cultural heritage. It was the first recognition from the national level and one much cherished by the town. It greatly helped residents to promote the town, not only to attract people to visit the festival but also to promote it as a trade and investment destination.
The next big exhibition was held in 2007. This covered 300,000 square metres in four city parks and nearly 1,800 varieties in 460,000 pots. It attracted 123 exhibitors from 44 cities in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and China, including Macao and Hong Kong. A total of three million people attended.
The society decided that, from 2008, an exhibition would be held every year, starting on November 23rd and running for two weeks.
The exhibition hall shows the versatility of the chrysanthemum. It displays its use in cuisine, for use in sauces and as a flavouring, as well as in cakes and biscuits. It is also a popular tea, being used to make chrysanthemum tea. The hall has a room dedicated to calligraphy and poems inspired by the flower.
"Cantonese people love chrysanthemums," said Liang Guoxiu, a civil servant from Guangzhou visiting the exhibition with his family. "We buy them for Chong Yang Festival in September and ahead of Chinese New Year, as a symbol of hope and spring.”
The festival falls on the ninth day of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar and is a traditional holiday in China, Japan and Vietnam. In Japan, it is also known as the Chrysanthemum Festival.
According to tradition, this day has too much “yang” and is potentially dangerous. To protect themselves from danger, people drink chrysanthemum liquor and lay out the flower in their homes. It is considered to have cleaning qualities and can cure you from illness.
"For grief and funerals, we use a small white flower,” said Liang. “But that is only one variety. In general, it is a positive and joyful flower."
He said that the industry had greatly changed over the past 30 years. "Three decades ago, transport was not so convenient and this was a flower for Guangdong. But now farmers send it all over China, to areas where it cannot be grown, and abroad.
"Many areas of Guangdong grow them, including Guangzhou. Xiaolan is not as unusual as it used to be. But it has a long history and traditions. The flower has a special place in our hearts.”
Xiaolan is a township that is part of Zhong-shan city. It covers an area of 754,000 square kilometres with a population of 322,000. In 2014, it achieved a GDP of 27.13 billion yuan, of which industry accounted for 58.6 per cent, the service sector 41.1 per cent and agriculture 0.3 per cent.
Text Louise do Rosário
Photos Eric Tam
(Issue N. 32, January 2016)