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Chinese Food Symbolism: Fruits (Part I)

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Foods and Symbolism

Spring Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(1) page(s): 16


Fruits are temple offerings. Did you ever wonder why? What about oranges? Did you get any this past Chinese New Year holiday? Were they fresh? The Chinese love fruits, they like them big and beautiful, and they prefer fresh fruits, though sugared ones are common at this time of year. Fresh fruit at the New Year symbolizes life and a new beginning. Sugared ones are a wish for a sweet year. Traditionally, the pomelo, mandarins or what we call the tangerine or clementine, as well as limes, bananas, pineapple, and water or winter melon are seen as temple offerings. And speaking of traditions, during the harvest festival, the Lunar New Year, and other special occasions, fruits are common gifts, as well as common offerings.

The orange is a prayer or wish for good fortune. That is why it is probably the most common food offering. As a harbinger of wishes for good luck, they are often eaten on the second day of the New Year. Why not the first, because once an Emperor distributed oranges to his officials on the second day of the New Year. Thus you are also wishing for officialdom if you eat them on this day.

The mandarin and other fruits in the citrus family have other interesting roles. For instance, after her wedding, the bride is given two of these fruits by her new in-laws. She is to peel them the evening of the nuptials and share them with her husband. These two fruits are symbolizing a family wish that the bride and groom share a happy and full life together. Also, the name of the mandarin in Cantonese also means gold, clearly a dual wish here adding hopes for a life loaded with prosperity.

I was told that in the north of China two types of dried fruits are placed under the marriage bed, both wishing for many offspring. These are dried lychees and dried longans. The reason for these particular items, the words for them also mean "to have children quickly."

Melons and the pomelo are symbolic of family unity, they hold out the wish that the family will, like the moon, stay round, large, whole, and also united. Families love to share them and many other fruits. That may be why they buy large fruits and share them together.

Pomegranates have special family meaning, too. They symbolizes fertility; this fruit is full of seeds. A picture is often a wedding gift, a special picture with one of these fruits shown half-opened. The meaning is a hundred seeds, or more completely, a hundred sons. The word for seed is zi, it is also the word for sons.

The pomegranate is one fruit not used for sacrifice. The reason, it is considered to be too seductive. If you see a pomegranate on an old sash or cap of office in an ancient painting, the meaning has nothing to do with the seeds of this fruit, rather, it is saying or maybe praying to keep the title or rank from generation to generation in the same family. As in the two meanings for zi, what we call a homonym, only in this case it the word shi which also means generation.

Banana, found on some offering altars are there for other reasons. This fruit's leaves are one of the fourteen precious items to scholars. So on the offering table or altar, you are finding a wish for education, brilliance in work or school, or a related thought.

Apples have meaning, too. They symbolize peace. The word for apple in Chinese is ping, the homonym of ping is peace. Should you wonder what a homonym is, think of the word bear, the big four-legged animal and then think bear as in to bear fruit. Now the blossom of the apple is different; it stands for beauty. If you see one in a picture along with magnolias, the meaning is a hope that your house be honored and rich (with beauty).

Apricots are symbolic, too, they can stand for or mean a beautiful woman. But beauty had best not be to give your husband a red one. If you did, it would tell him that his wife is having an affair with a lover.

The loquat in Chinese is called pipa, which is the name of a Chinese musical instrument. Now this fruit ripens in early spring. So young boys out with less than honorable women were said to be running with loquat blossoms. Peaches portend longevity, and one almost always sees them in the hand of a man. That could be because the peach blossom advises of a somewhat loose lady. One rarely sees these two fruits together. though in real life less han honorable women could be out with young boys.

Pears symbolize something else. For example, lovers should never share a pear because the word for pear is identical to the word for separation. Many fruits are shared, but never is the pear divided with a husband, a lover, or a friend. And, whatever you do, don't give pears as a gift, especially on the 15th day of the 7th month; if you did, you would be wishing a separation from or to someone loved.

Symbols in fruit and other foods are fascinating. Allow me to end with a tripartite Chinese image wishing you (with a peach, a pomegranate, and a finger-lemon) a long life, many sons, and every happiness.

                                                                                                                                                       
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