Living fossils: Taiwan tea and salmon

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Two articles in Chinese (here and here) recently brought news of an indigenous type of tea and referred to it as a rare type of salmon.  Trying to figure that out led to two linguistic puzzles:

1. Making sense of the unusual name for the salmon:  yīnghuā gōu wěn guī 櫻花鉤吻鮭 (lit., "cherry-hook-kiss / mouth-salmon"; i.e., the Formosan landlocked salmon).

2. Understanding how, even metaphorically, a kind of tea would be referred to as a type of salmon.

Fortunately the guī 鮭 ("salmon") doesn't signify a fishy tasting tea. The text below this Youtube video explains "It's a crop left over from the Ice Age. It's what's referred to as a relic plant. It has the same plight as that of the Formosan landlocked salmon. They were both left behind by the glaciers."

Some other stories in English:

"Taiwan's first native tea wakes after thousands of years of sleep:  'Taitung Yongkang No. 1'* believed to date back to Ice Age", by Huang Tzu-ti, Taiwan News (2019/11/09

*It was formerly known as Taiwan Tea No. 24.

"Station unveils new tea plant 19 years in making", by Chien Hui-ju and Sherry Hsiao (2019/08/07)

Well, now, which Ice Age are they talking about?

There have been at least five major ice ages in the Earth's history (the Huronian, Cryogenian, Andean-Saharan, late Paleozoic, and the latest Quaternary Ice Age*). Outside these ages, the Earth seems to have been ice free even in high latitudes; such periods are known as greenhouse periods.


*Began 2.58 Ma (million years ago), and is ongoing.

A "Little Ice Age" began around the middle of the 13th c. AD and ended by around the middle of the 19th c.


Although both the tea and the salmon are unique species for Taiwan, I doubt that either of them were left behind after the retreat of an ice age "thousands of years ago".  In the first place, we are still in the Quaternary Ice Age which began two and a half million years ago.  Second, although Taitung Yongkang No. 1 may be an indigenous Taiwanese tea, mainlanders in the East Asian Heartland only began regularly to drink tea as an aromatic, refreshing beverage about 1,200 years ago, and they were not exporting the plant or the culture of tea-drinking to Taiwan before that time.  If Taitung Yongkang No. 1 is truly an indigenous Taiwan tea, which I believe may well be the case, then it might indeed be from a strain of Camellia sinensis that was an outlier from the botanical homeland of tea which lay in far northeast India (Assam and Darljeeling), northeast Myanmar, southernmost Yunnan, and northwest Laos.  See the "Selected Readings" below and the following book:

Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh,  The True History of Tea (Thames & Hudson, 2009)

As for the Formosan landlocked salmon, it is the southernmost member of the Salmonidae family in Asia.

The Formosan landlocked salmon is a subspecies of the more widespread West-Pacific cherry salmon (or masu salmon). This Taiwanese subspecies is critically endangered, being at high risk for extinction, and is protected in its native habitat. The Formosan land-locked salmon is one of the rarest fish in the world. Once a staple of the Taiwanese aborigine diet, there are now barely more than 400 of this type of salmon left. Overfishing has led to its decline. Conservationists are trying to save this subspecies which is threatened nowadays mainly by pollution.

Source (English; Chinese)

It is possible that Oncorhynchus masou formosanus became landlocked due to a climatic (e.g., prolonged cold spell) or more likely geological (e.g., earthquake, mountain upheaval) anomaly.

Now back to the Chinese name of Oncorhynchus masou formosanus.  I myself was guessing that gōu 鉤 has to do with the fish's hook-shaped lower jaw and wěn 吻 with its mouth and lips (normally in Mandarin we would expect to call the mouth of a fish its zuǐ 嘴).  But it still seems like an odd name for a fish, and most of my informants felt the same way.  The nomenclature of Oncorhynchus masou formosanus is discussed here and here (both in Chinese).  The former source is more accessible to the non-specialist and the latter is more academic.

We may interpret the last three morphemes as "hooked-mouth-salmon", an explanation for which is found here.

The pertinent anatomical features of the Formosan landlocked salmon may be summarized thus:  the lower jaw is large and protractile.  The upward-curving hook-like shape is accentuated during the spawning period.  Similarly, during the spawning period the body of the male salmon turns black with pink dots on the sides, making a pattern that looks like sakura (cherry) blossoms against the dark background.

The Formosan landlocked salmon is a subspecies of the Pacific salmon, living in subtropical Taiwan. This makes the subspecies endemic to Taiwan. The mountain formation that took place 15,000 years ago, at the end of the Ice Age, blocked the way to the sea. This is how the salmon became landlocked.

Formosan landlocked salmon is, then, unique to Taiwan’s mountain rivers, a relic of the Ice Age. It is an example of an “ice age relic species,” a rare “living fossil.” It is known as a “national treasure fish”.

See "Formosan landlocked salmon conservation a success", Taipei Times (3/20/19).

I don't know about all of that ice age talk (which ice age? when did it take place?), but there's no doubt that both the Formosan landlocked salmon and Taitung Yongkang No. 1 tea are precious rarities.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Swofford, Che-chia Chang, Henning Klöter, Chia-hui Lu, Melvin Lee, Grace Wu, Sophie Wei, and Chiu-kuei Wang]


  1. Thomas Rees said,

    December 31, 2019 @ 9:00 pm

    Surely the 鉤吻 (gōuwěn) part is simply a translation of Oncorhynchus. According to Wiktionary from ancient Greek ὄγκος (ónkos, “lump, bend”) + ῥύγχος (rhúnkhos, “snout”), referring to the kype

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 1, 2020 @ 12:29 am

    Without a doubt — but if you're only familiar with the Chinese, how could you know that?

  3. Slumbery said,

    January 1, 2020 @ 1:55 am

    You are right that in precise scientific terminology ice ages are longer periods when glaciation occurs, so we are pretty much still in the Quaternaly Ace Age. However ice ages themselves have relatively warmer periods when ice retreats (interglacials) and colder so called glaciation or glacial periods, when ice advances. These glaciation periods are themselves often called "ice age" even in scientifically themed literature. It is so frequent that when somebody, even a geologist, talks about "ice age" in a context that is not strictly focused on the science of this topic, you can safely assume that they actually mean glacial period.
    This is the source of confusion here. They talk about the end of the last glacial period, but call it ice age (again, this is pretty common).

  4. Chris Button said,

    January 1, 2020 @ 4:24 pm

    Curious if anyone has any thoughts on the etymology of 鮭 itself?

    I wonder if it's coincidental that 蛙 "frog" is in the same phonetic series? .The etymology of the word "salmon" is often given as the "leaping fish"

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