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The storage method of litch in the Tang Dynasty

http://www.chinese.cn 15:11, August 17, 2010 Confucius Institute Online

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Yang Guifei
Yang Guifei

Because litchi grrows in southern China and people value its s rarity, it was a treasured delicacy in the Central Plains of China. As the shelf life of litchi is just a few days and with the slow post house system in the Tang Dynasty, how could people carry litchi from the south to Chang'an?

In ancient China litchi was also called Li Zhi (meaning leaving the boughs). Once picked from the boughs, its color will change in one day, its aroma will be altered in two days and its taste will go bad in three days. After four or five days litchi will taste very bad even if it does not spoil. As Bai Juyi mentioned in the Preface to Litchi Painting, after leaving litchi tree, the fruit discolours in a day, the aroma fades in two days, the taste goes bad in three days and accordingly, the color, aroma and taste all perish after four or five days.

The most authoritative record of the story of Yang Guifei and litchi is the one in the book Biology of Concubine Yang Guifei in The New Tang Book, “Yang Guifei was fond of lychees and only eat fresh ones. To satisfy her demands, Emperor Tai Zong asked people to carry fresh litchi to Chang’an for her from thousands of miles away before they spoiled.” We can see from this description that Yang Guifei only ate fresh litchi and Emperor Xuan Zhong tried his utmost to indulge his beloved by bringing fresh litchi to her from thousands of miles away via the post houses. Xie Fangde, a man of letters in Southern Song Dynasty even wrote in his Selection of Tang Poems, “During the reign of Emperor Xuan Zong, litchi in Peizhou did not spoil on its way to Chang'an as a tribute. As a result the concubine was pleased. In order to meet the Emperor’s demands, states and counties along the way ordered postmen to run so fast that both postmen and horses died on the street after their duties were complete.”

Although the post house system in the Tang Dynasty was more advanced than ever in comparison with that of others in ancient China, generally speaking, it was impossible to forward litchi from south China to Chang'an in a day with fast horses. According to the research of the successors, the forwarders only made it possible by way of transplanting the litchi trees. A historical record describes the moving process as follows : “first plant the uprooted litchi trees in vessels and forward them from Chunan (south Hubei Province) area to Danhe in Xiangyang of Chubei (north Hubei Province) area, then to those areas in Shangzhou or Qinlin where shipping are not allowed. While the fruits are still fresh, pick them and across Qinlin, then you can reach Huaqingguan in one day by horse back”.

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