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Chrysanthemum - flower of honour

If you look at the latest minting of the 1 yuan coin, you will see the flower on its face is a chrysanthemum. With its slim, curling petals and its elegant look, the flower has long been a favourite with the Chinese people.

Just as the peony represents richness and grace, the chrysanthemum, which blooms in the cold days of late autumn and early winter, represents nobility and elegance. From ancient times, its praises have been sung by Chinese scholars.

Its Chinese name "ju" means "gathering together", because the flower looks like a petal ball.

The flower comes in several varieties but originally the chrysanthemum was just a small yellow flower. After generations of cultivation, the number of varieties grew rapidly. In the Chrysanthemum Book of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), 35 varieties were noted but by the time of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the number had risen to 136. In Li Shizhen's famous book, "Ben Cao Gang Mu", finished in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), more than 900 varieties of chrysanthemum were listed. Today more than 3,000 varieties are blooming in China.

'Autumn flower'
One reason for the flower's popularity among the Chinese people is the favour it found with scholars.

The chrysanthemum, also known as the "Autumn Flower", is one of the four "honourable plants". The others are plum, orchid and bamboo which are symbols of nobility.

In most ancient essays and poems, writers use the terms "jade bone, icy body, pearl petal and red heart" to describe the flower. For on cold autumn days, when all other flowers were fading away, only the chrysanthemum was able to flourish in the cold winds. The combination of beauty with strong character made an ideal personality in the eyes of romantic Chinese scholars.

Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), the famous poet who committed suicide because he was unhappy with the dark reality of life, was among the first to write poetry about the chrysanthemum. He wrote in his poem "Li Sao": "Drink dew from the magnolia in the morning and take autumn chrysanthemum's falling petals as food in the evening."

Another famous poet, Tao Yuanming (365-427), is also recognized as a poet who had a deep affection for the flower. His most famous poem is about the chrysanthemum: "Pick a chrysanthemum near a fence and enjoy the mountain in the south at your leisure."

This poem, entitled "Drinking Wine", was written when he resigned from his high official post and returned to the countryside to live as a farmer.

Even when he was too poor to buy wine - drinking was his hobby - he could pick the petals of chrysanthemums and use them as food. In his poverty-stricken and lonely later life, the chrysanthemum was his only friend and comfort.

Since Tao, many other writers and poets have sung the praises of the chrysanthemum and it became almost a traditional topic for every scholar to write about with the arrival of autumn. In "The Dream of Red Mansions", readers can find more than 10 poems about the flower written by the beautiful ladies of Jia's family.

Tough life
It is easy to compare women with flowers. In Chinese literature, flowers such as the lily, peony or plum have all been connected with notable beauties. But when comparing the chrysanthemum with people, the tone is totally different and much more manly.

Actually, rarely is the chrysanthemum compared with women - it is more often associated with independent, proud, noble, willful and tough men, such as Qu Yuan and Tao Yuanming.

Another famous figure identified with the chrysanthemum is Huang Chao who lived in the 9th century. Huang was the leader of a peasant revolt towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). He led an army of thousands and occupied Luoyang after several years of fighting.

He wrote two poems about the chrysanthemum, one of which 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 (of the chrysanthemum) would fill Chang'an City, and the city would be clothed in golden armour."

At the peak of his life, in 884, his revolution failed and he committed suicide.

Effective herb
To the common people, chrysanthemums also had uses as a herb. You still find today that Chinese women drink chrysanthemum tea instead of coffee. One variety of chrysanthemum, known as "Hang Bai Ju" (Hangzhou White Chrysanthemum), is said by experts to have healthcare properties.

Ancient people believed that this flower, which was able to endure very cold weather, must have attracted "the soul of the sky and earth" - certainly a health benefit.

A book from the time of the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC) said there used to be a village named Gangu in Central China's Henan Province where people drank from a nearby stream that contained the petals of chrysanthemums. The petals had fallen into the stream up in the mountains and all the villagers lived to a great age, some as long as 130 years.

The well-known doctor, Tao Hongjing, also encouraged people to eat chrysanthemum petals. He said good-quality chrysanthemums tasted a little sweet and the bad ones, bitter. So why not try some chrysanthemums this autumn?

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