“I seek and don’t find myself. I belong to chrysanthemum hours, neatly lined up in flower pots.”
When I think of chrysanthemums, I think of crispy fall mornings and warm apple cider. With their bright petals and sturdy constitutions, they are the perfect flower to celebrate the transition of the seasons. These colorful flowers have an equally vibrant history. In this post, we’ll cover the origin of the chrysanthemum in China and its impact on Chinese culture, and finish with the legend of how he chrysanthemum came to be.
History of the Chrysanthemum in China
Chrysanthemums, often called mum, are in the genus Chrysanthemum and the family Asteraceae. They have been cultivated in China as far back as the 15th century B.C., and pottery from this time shows a flower that looks very similar to what we’re used to seeing in our gardens today. Chrysanthemums often appear in Chinese paintings and drawings as well, where they are recognized as one of the Four Gentlemen alongside the plum blossom, orchid, and bamboo. These four plants are regarded as the most beautiful and refined in Asian culture and are symbolic of of each of the four seasons. Chrysanthemums are associated with fall.
The flowers were incredibly popular in ancient China. By the year 1630, over 500 distinct varieties were recorded. Part of there popularity stemmed from their reputation as a medicinal herb that had power over life. All parts of the flower were used: boiled roots were a headache remedy, petals were put in salads, and leaved were brewed into special drinks. Chrysanthemums are also the designated city flower of Kaifeng, and the city of Chu-Hsien is named for the bright yellow blossoms.
The chrysanthemum is the central component to an important Chinese event, the Chongyang or Double Ninth Festival. This festival takes place on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, and generally falls sometime in the month of October. Legend has it that a devil once lived in the Nu river and caused disease in the communities neighboring the area. One day, a young man by the name of Hengjing decided that he would be the one to destroy the devil and end its chokehold on the area. He sought out and trained with an immortal until he was an expert swordsman. On the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, Hengjing returned home. He took a bag of dogwood and a bottle of chrysanthemum wine, and sought out the devil’s cave. The delicious fragrance from the herbs were enough to distract the demon long enough for Hengjing to dispatch him with his sword.
Today, Hengjing feat is celebrated by eating Chongyang cake, drinking chrysanthemum wine and tea, climbing to the tops of mountains, and admiring chrysanthemums. Chongyang cake is a steamed dessert that is made of two layers of cake with a layer of nuts and jujube pressed between them. In Chinese, the word for the cake is pronounced “gao” which means high, so eating the cake can be a substitute for climbing “high” on a mountain. Chrysanthemum wine is particularly important to the celebration because it is associated with having antitoxin properties that can cure and prevent all manner of disasters and diseases. Many people also enjoy hiking or other outdoor pursuits, and some even participate in mountain climbing races.
Recently, the Chongyang Festival also became associated with celebrating the elderly, and is a day to spend time with older friends and relatives doing things that they enjoy.
The chrysanthemum’s unique color and shape have even caused them to be heavily featured in the works of Chinese poets. These ancient poets used phrases like “jade bone”, “icy body”, “pearl petal” and “red heart” in reference to the flower’s gracefulness and ability to keep living while other flowers wilted and died in the cold. Another interesting aspect of the chrysanthemum’s use in poetry was its association with tough, proud, independent men. Where as other flowers were used to describe women, the chrysanthemum had strong masculine associations.
One of the first poets to describe the chrysanthemum was Qu Yuan who lived from 340-278 BC. Though he is most famous for spending much of his life unable to reconcile himself with the dark nature of reality before committing suicide, he penned this line, “Drink dew from the magnolia in the morning and take autumn chrysanthemum’s falling petals as food in the evening.”
Perhaps the poet most famous for his love of his chrysanthemums was Tao Yuanming, who lived from 365-427 BC. When he was too poor to afford wine, he would pick the petals of chrysanthemums for his meals. His poem, “Drinking Wine,” about the flower includes the advice to, “pick a chrysanthemum near a fence and enjoy the mountain in the south at your leisure.”
The final famous poet I’ll mention in this post is Huang Chao from 9th century China. He was particularly notable because he was the leader of a peasant revolt during the Tang dynasty. Though his revolt ultimately failed, before that happened he wrote two poems about chrysanthemums. One of them contains the lines, “If I could be the king of the flowers, I would allow the chrysanthemum to bloom with the peach blossom; The fragrance would fill Chang’an City, and the city would be clothed in golden armour.”
Chrysanthemums have continued to be a source of great inspiration to poets throughout Asia. Today, the flower is considered such a classic motif that it is traditional for scholars and poets to write about the chrysanthemum around the time that summer transitions to autumn.
Origin of the Chrysanthemum: The Legend of Dragonfly Island
Legend has it that there was a Chinese emperor many centuries ago who lived in a state of constant fear of the day that he would one day die. Over the years, he spent his youth and vast fortune investigating every folk remedy and traveler’s tale that might prolong his life even a few more years.
One day, a visiting scholar from far away brought a new story to the emperor’s court. The scholar told the emperor of a magical herb on a distant island, called Dragonfly Island. On its shores, the scholar promised the emperor would find a plant that had the power to restore the youth to even the oldest man. The moment the emperor heard this, he began to summon his servants to begin preparations for traveling to the island, but the scholar stopped him. With a solemn expression the scholar told the emperor that he would not be able to find the herb himself. Dragonfly Island was a magical place, and only the young could set foot on the island and return alive.
Undeterred, the emperor called for a group of twelve young men and twelve young women to find the island and return with the magical herb. The group formed in a few hours. The youth left the next morning and traveled for many days and many nights before reaching the ocean. They boarded a boat and together they survived terrible seas storms and attacks from fierce sea serpents. Finally, bedraggled and exhausted, the group’s boat touched the soft, golden shores of Dragonfly Island. They slept hard that first night, but in the morning they began to search every inch of the island. As much as they searched, they found no other inhabitants but themselves. Finally, the youngest of the group discovered a single golden flower growing in the center of the island. With great care, the child placed the plant in a container and the group wearily turned to make their way home with the first chrysanthemum.
In the Victorian Language of Flowers a Chinese Chrysanthemum means “cheerfulness under adversity”, a red Chrysanthemum means “relieve my anxiety,” a white Chrysanthemum means “truth,” and a yellow Chrysanthemum means “slighted love.”
In the Japanese Language of Flowers a yellow chrysanthemum means “imperial” and a white chrysanthemum means “truth.” White chrysanthemums are also often used for funerals and graves.
In France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Poland, Hungary, and Croatia, incurve chrysanthemums who’s petals curve inward to form a spherical looking flower have a darker meaning. They are associated with death and can be found at funerals. Non-incurve flowers don’t carry the came connotations.