Plum > apricot and wine > brew: the language of poetry and painting

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[This is a follow up to "Preserved wife plum" (7/12/17), after which there ensued a vigorous and enlightening discussion on the terminology for plums, apricots, pastries, and so forth.]

My wife was born in Shandong in 1936, but fled from the Japanese with her family to Sichuan before she was one year old, and she spent the next eleven years of her life in Sichuan, before fleeing once again with her family, this time from the Chinese Communists, to Taiwan.

One of the last things Li-ching did before passing away in 2010 was write her childhood memoirs in Hanyu Pinyin (see here, here [three items], and here).  At this moment, I do not recall if she mentioned it in her memoirs, but one of her fondest recollections of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan where she and her family lived (it was also the wartime capital of the Republic of China — now on Taiwan) was the làméi 臘梅 / 腊梅 (Chimonanthus fragrans / praecox).  In English, the làméi 臘梅 is referred to as wintersweet, Japanese allspice (despite the attractive name, it is not edible), calyx canthus, and mistakenly — but still quite commonly — as "wax plum" (look it up on Google Images under this name for pretty pictures of the blossoms).   In Japanese this plant is called rōbai 蝋梅, although it used to be written 臘梅 and 蠟梅 (nowadays it is normally written in kana alone:  ろうばい · ロウバイ).

It would take me too far afield to get into the thorny relationships among 臘, 腊, 蝋, 蠟, and 蜡, but if someone else wants to attempt it, they're more than welcome.  On the Chinese side, là 臘 / 腊, refers to the twelfth month (year-end) sacrifice, or more generally to wintertime.  Pronounced xī, this same character means "dried meat", but the term 臘肉 / 腊肉, which refers to cured meat made during the last month of the year, is pronounced làròu.  (I clearly remember walking around the campus of Sichuan University in winter and seeing the làròu 臘肉 / 腊肉 hanging from the windows and balconies of people's flats as it cured.)  On the other hand, là 蠟 / 蜡 means "wax".  I leave it to others to sort out the relevant kanji.

Judging from its scientific classification, the làméi 臘梅 is completely unrelated to the Prunus genus, which includes plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots and almonds.  This is proof that Sino-Japanese méi / kun ume, on bai 梅 spans across more than one genus.

Back to Sichuan.  I used to go there frequently in the late 80s and 90s to work on a massive dictionary of Middle Vernacular Sinitic with Zhu Qingzhi, who was teaching at Sichuan university in those years (we're still working on it, and hope to finish within two years).  One winter, my wife said to me, "Victor, if you see any làméi, please bring some back for me."

I knew how much Li-ching loved làméi, so I kept my eyes open for it as I walked through Chengdu in the gray, dreary cold.  One day, I saw some branches of blossoming làméi hanging over a courtyard wall, so I broke off a small sprig that extended far out into the alleyway (I knew how much it would mean to Li-ching).  Because the làméi is so delicate, yet flowers in the dead of winter on leafless branches, it has tremendous symbolic significance for those who struggle in adversity.

Fortunately, I managed to preserve that sprig with all of its petals intact.  When I delivered it to Li-ching, she was ecstatic, since she hadn't seen, held, and smelled làméi for more than half a century by that point.

The other greatest gift that I gave to Li-ching was a sprig of plum blossoms, the kind that julie lee wrote about in this comment, perfectly encased in a block of clear plastic, acrylic, I believe.  By chance, I found it in a small arts and crafts shop in Kyoto.  I do not know how the craftsman who made that work of art did it, but there are no bubbles or other imperfections in the block, and every tiny petal, stamen, and pistil retains its original shape, as fresh as the day when that block was created.

Because they are both called méi 梅 in Chinese, even though they are not in the same genus, the two gifts that I gave to Li-ching were intimately linked in her mind.

This leads me to a brief conclusion on the terminology for "wine" in Chinese.  We've discussed this many times on Language Log before (e.g., here, here, and here).  Suffice it to say for the moment that technically jiǔ 酒 is not "wine", but more akin to "brew" or "beer".  Countless poems have been written about drinking jiǔ 酒 and appreciating méi 梅, and these terms are almost always translated as "wine" and "plum", though technically those translations may not be correct in many cases.  Despite the title of this post, it is not my intention to embark on a campaign to change our customary renderings of jiǔ 酒 and méi 梅, except when it would clearly make more sense to do otherwise.  However, when it comes to fāngyán 方言, we really do need to stop using the mistranslation of that term as an excuse to call Cantonese, Taiwanese, etc. "dialects" (of what?  Mandarin?), when clearly they are bona fide languages.


  1. liuyao said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 11:42 am

    The wartime capital was Chongqing, not Chengdu.

  2. leoboiko said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

    It doesn't help that "plum" and "wine" are such delicious, juicy, mellow words. Poor awkward "apricot" can't stand a chance.

    I'm reminded of Robin D. Gill's wonderful magnum opus, Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!, featuring a thousand Japanese haiku in multiple translations with copious notes—every single one of them about the nondescript sea critter called, in Japanese, namako. D. Gill is perfectly aware that the accurate translation of namako is "sea cucumber", but one can't possibly be expected to compose thousands of poetic translations with a word like "cucumber" when an alluring cutie like "slug" is there tempting you the entire time.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 2:27 pm

    I see many people have called this shrub "calyx canthus". I'll bet that originated as an error for "Calycanthus", a genus in the same small family, Calycanthaceae. (Calycanthus comprises two North American species; a Chinese shrub is sometimes placed in it as C. sinensis and sometimes in a genus of its own, Sinocalycanthus.)

  4. Ryan Paltor said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 3:39 pm


    A man is remembering the wife he misses very much while educating us and you have to chime in with your autistic remark. You'll go far in academia my friend.

    Please correct me by saying you have Aspergers.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 3:50 pm

    From Richard Lynn:

    I do remember arguing with Dave Knechtges years ago about "jiu" = "wine" he insisted that "ale" was the most appropriate. Well, in terms of the chemistry involved, I suppose this is correct, but if we consider the social and aesthetic connotations, especially in translating poetry, I still think "wine" is best. Ale brings to mind English and Irish pubs, dart boards, and Endeavour Morse (for me anyway). "Beer" is even less appropriate–beer and Sunday pro football, frat parties, etc. "Wine" fits the Chinese poetry scene much better. I also remember once discussing 興 with James Liu–he wanted to use "gusto" but I advised against it, since tv, billboards, etc. were at the time (mid 70s) flogging Budweiser beer as the beer with the most gusto.

    The references to 梅 and the problem of apricot and plum might be solved by setting on "prunus" as the best term in English.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

    From David Knechtges:

    Thank you for sending this wonderful piece. I especially like what you say about 梅. I have long pointed out to my students that it is an apricot. By the way, why is apricot less poetic than plum? I blame the art historians for perpetuating this botanically incorrect rendering. And of course 臘梅 also is not a plum. The Chimonanthus is related to the magnolia. As for 酒, only Steve Owen and I have dared to render it as ale in print. Even my good friend Paul Kroll has urged me to use the more "poetic" wine.

    I applaud you for writing essays of this kind that uphold rigorous philological standards.

  7. Alec Story said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 5:21 pm

    As someone with a deep interest in Chinese fermented beverages, I side pretty hard with H. T. Huang in _Science and Civilisation in China_ Volume 6 Part 5 in rendering 酒 as "wine" (at least when talking about pre-modern sources) based on its organoleptic qualities, and its use in society.

    Not only that, "beer" is wrong in that "beer" in English usage and legally must contain hops while hops are nearly entirely absent in non-beer Chinese beverages, now and historically. "Ale" is perhaps better if you appeal to the archaic distinction between ale and beer (that beer contains hops and ale does not) but I think that that's still not a great idea.

    I don't like "brew" either because most 酒s don't involve a step where ingredients are steeped on hot water, which is (to me at least) what brewing means. Beer has this step, but grape wines and grain wines do not as far as I understand.

    Personally, I informally think of 酒 as "booze" but sadly that word is usually inappropriate for most translations.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 5:38 pm

    From Pan Daan:

    In China, mei 梅 and li 李, though both belonging to the prunus family, are two seemingly identical yet different sub-species with distinctive colors, shapes, and flavors. Mei 梅, also known as qing mei (lit., green plum) 青梅,is green (hence "green plum"), oval shaped, and always sour (hence "sour plum" 酸梅). By comparison, li 李 is reddish, round, and sweetish (when ripe). In traditional Chinese culture, there are idioms that help differentiate between there two sub-species. For example, wang4 mei2 zhi3 ke3 望梅止渴,quenching thirst by watching (green) plums, is a proverbial idiom associated with General Cao Cao in Luo Guanzhong's novel A Martial Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which clearly indicates that this fruit is sour (because sour flavor stimulates production of saliva). Tao2 li3 man3 tian1 xia4, 桃李满天下,another idiomatic expression in common usage, associates tao 桃 (peach) with li 李 instead of mei 梅, a rhetorical word-pairing, which dates back to the Classic of Poetry, 《诗·召南 · 何彼襛矣》:“何彼襛矣,华如桃李,” by virtue of their luxuriant floral beauty. In this expression, tao 桃 and li 李 are used as a combined metaphor for someone's fruitful training and nurturing of a successive contingent of students, pupils, disciples, or apprentices. The fact that tao 桃 is paired with li 李 instead of mei 梅 and that li 李 and mei 梅 are not interchangeable in this idiom also points to the differentiality between mei 梅 and li 李.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 8:39 pm

    "Ancient Chinese techniques inspired the Field Museum and Off Color to make an extraordinary new beer: Brewer John Laffler talks about how he used rice and mold—and some help from a Field archaeologist—to create the new, limited QingMing."

    Julia Thiel Chicago Reader (7/11/17)

    See also this comment to an earlier post (3/31/15):

    By chance, yesterday afternoon, we heard a talk on the following topic in our department: "Wine Road before the Silk Road: Hypotheses on the Origins of Chinese and Eurasian Drinking Culture". It was delivered by Peter Kupfer, Professor, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany. Peter was accompanied by my colleague, Patrick McGovern, author of Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (2009).

    Peter and Pat had just come from a conference on "Understanding Jiu: The History and Culture of Alcoholic Beverages in China" that was held on March 26, 2015 at UC Davis, which has one of the world's outstanding centers for (o)enology and viticulture.

    Also present at the Penn seminar yesterday was Christoph Harbsmeier, a Sinologist from the University of Oslo. The discussion during and after Peter's presentation was vigorous and productive.

    The consensus of the participants at the Penn seminar is in agreement with the definition for jiǔ 酒 in Paul Kroll's new A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese:


    MC tsjuwX
    1 gen. term for alcoholic beverages produced through fermentation, incl. those with infusions or spices that sometimes lend various colors such as rose-pink or amber. Although most drinks designated by this word are made from cereals and are thus akin to beer, from Western Han times it also ref. grape-wine (first brought from Central Asia) and “burnt-wine” (brandy), the former becoming esp. popular during Tang times; use “wine” as preferred rendering for its inclusiveness; to use “ale” is misleading as it ref. only to a specific type of beer which is actually most similar to → 醴 lǐ.

    s.v. 醴, Kroll has:

    MC lejX
    1 sweet liquor, made with malt (nie 糵) and glutinous millet (shu 黍); often translated as “mead,” which is a serviceable rendering but technically inaccurate since honey is not an ingredient of this beverage; the more correct translation is “ale.”
    2 day-old wine.


    Note on the phonetic notation: The -X is part of Baxter's tonal spelling system, in which pingsheng syllables are unmarked; shangsheng syllables are indicated by a final -X; qusheng syllables are marked with a final -H, and rusheng syllables can be identified by the final obstruent. See William H. Baxter and Laurent Sagart, Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction (2014). Their Old Chinese reconstruction for jiǔ 酒 is tsuʔ. Axel Schuessler's Old Chinese reconstruction of jiǔ 酒 is tsjəuB, where B is a superscript and indicates a tonal category (Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese: A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa [2009]).

    We have had several posts about jiǔ 酒 on Language Log:

    "Let the Beer-Divider Be Chief!" (8/5/09)

    "Don't Drive in the What, er?" (8/4/09)

    "Ethanol tampons" (12/5/14)

    Tom Standage has a great chapter on "Beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt" in his A History of the World in 6 Glasses (2006), pp. 14-36. It is available on this blog:

    About two-thirds of the way down the page, at the beginning of the section titled "The Origins of Writing", we find an illustration with this caption: "The evolution of the written symbol for beer in cuneiform. Over the years the depiction of the beer jar gradually became more abstract". (from 3200-1000 BC)

    Here are the early forms of the Chinese character jiǔ 酒 for comparison:

    There is a clear resemblance between the Sumerian and the Chinese symbols for "beer", both of which depict a jug. It's interesting that the oracle bone forms (second half of second millennium BC) for 酒 all have the three drops of water as a semantophore, whereas the bronze inscriptional forms (first millennium BC) and even some of the seal forms (latter part of the first millennium BC) lack the three dots for liquid, making the character for jiǔ 酒 identical to that for yǒu 酉 ("an ancient vase used in making and storing fermented millet liquors")

    Bottom lines:

    The Chinese word for "wine" is pútáojiǔ 葡萄酒 ("grape jiǔ"), where pútáo 葡萄 (there are many different ways to write this in Chinese characters) is a term for grape borrowed from an Iranian language.

    If it's made from grain, which jiǔ 酒 traditionally was, it's not wine.

    The Japanese alcoholic beverage called "sake" and made from fermented rice (N.B.: a grain) is written with the kanji 酒 (also has the Sino-Japanese pronunciation "shu").

    Conventionally, loosely, and poetically, some folks may prefer to translate jiǔ 酒 as "wine", but sensu stricto it is technically not "wine".

    [Thanks to Brendan O'Kane]

    Incidentally, Pat McGovern refers to some of the ancient alcoholic drinks (including ones from China) that, based on archeological investigations and in collaboration with Dogfish Head Brewery, he has recreated as "extreme fermented beverages".

  10. Chas Belov said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 2:50 am

    Thank you for sharing those memories.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 6:22 am

    Writing that Chengdu was the wartime capital of the Republic of China was a slip of the pen. I knew from the time I was a young lad in the late 40s that the capital of the ROC during WWII was Chungking (now spelled Chongqing in Hanyu Pinyin). That was around the same time my family started eating Chun King brand canned chop suey and chow mein, the first Chinese food I ever had, and I always associated that brand name with Chungking. I was also keenly aware that the late Zhou Youguang, chief architect of Hanyu Pinyin, spent the wartime years in Chungking, and that many important meetings between leaders of important parties and countries took place in Chungking because it was the seat of Chiang Kai-shek's government.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 8:36 am

    From Ying-che Li:

    As stated by Prof. Pan, 梅 is usually associated with 青 (and 酸), which also connotes ‘youth’ in addition to the color ‘green (also implies ‘youth’ in English)’; thus the expression 青梅竹马. 桃李in 桃李满天下, on the other hand, refers to ripe fruits after years of acculturation, unlike 青梅。

    There can also be 红梅 and 梅花, which are commonly used as girls’ names wholly or partly. 红 or花 is added, of course, to connote feminine beauty (my mother’s name is (胡)梅; one of my students’ name is (张)冬梅).

    红李 and 李花 are not usual combinations, except in 桃花红, 李花白, and they are not usually used in girls' names. 李 can be used in masculine names.

    Chinese like 梅花, especially since it blooms in cold winter. 松竹梅岁寒三友 is an expression celebrating the virtue of integrity in severe times. Thus, 冬梅 and 寒梅 are often used as girls’ names.

    松 also connotes’ ‘longevity’ and 竹 connotes 节操 ‘uprightness, integrity’. They occur in masculine names.

  13. Craig said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 11:26 am

    @Ryan Paltor, would it not have been sufficient for you to simply note that the correction was *for you* an unnecessary distraction to a lovely piece? Speculations tinged with negativity on whether the first commenter is neurotypical are an even greater distraction in my opinion.

  14. Geoff said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 1:29 am

    In the wonderful school poetry anthology Voices (ed. Geoffrey Summerfield, Penguin 1968) is this haiku, which has stayed with me for 50 years:

    'Don't break it!' he said,
    then broke off and gave me
    a branch of his plum.

  15. Fluxor said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 1:54 am

    Because the làméi is so delicate, yet flowers in the dead of winter on leafless branches, it has tremendous symbolic significance for those who struggle in adversity.

    These words remind me of this song, which the recipient of the lamei gift would surely have been quite familiar with as well:

  16. Victor Mair said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 6:12 am


    Thank you so much for sharing that. The divine, tragic Teresa Teng! Li-ching loved her songs as much as she loved méihuā 梅花, and she especially loved that song.

  17. Andreas Johansson said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 1:08 pm

    If none of the usual English words for alcoholic drinks quite fits for jiu, why don't we adopt the Chinese word? We happily call sake just that.

  18. Paul said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 8:59 am


    For one, I believe that it may be because of the pronunciation of 酒. From experience, non-Chinese speakers find the 'j' sound rather hard to get, especially when combined with 'iu' behind it. If we adopt the word, they'll probably just end up gutting it with a metaphorical axe. It seems that 'sake' is much easier to pronounce, but I'm not familiar with Japanese, so don't take my word on that.

  19. Nicki said,

    July 22, 2017 @ 3:50 am

    My main objection to translating "jiu" as wine is the too many times I've been asked, by native Mandarin speakers, if I like "white wine". I do. Then there is some snickering and the suggestion that now I'm obliged to drink baijiu with them. The overall impression they seem to have is that this is witty and that I will enjoy the joke. I do not.

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