The whimsicality of names for Erythrina trees in southeast China

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A little over a month ago, People's Daily published an article featuring drone photography of the coastal city of Quanzhou in Fujian Province:

Aerial view of legacies along ancient Maritime Silk Road in China's Fujian Xinhua (12/16/23)

Upon reading the article, I commented:

Journey to the West

Sun Wukong and Hanuman

This article is especially significant for many reasons, and is personally poignant for me because of its prominent coverage of the magnificent stone pagodas at the Kaiyuan temple in Quanzhou.  It was here that, among other important material, I found visual evidence for a connection between the monkey king, Sun Wukong, in the famous Ming novel, Journey to the West, and the simian hero, Hanuman, in the Indian epic, Ramayana.

If you do a google search on      kaiyuan pagoda quanzhou victor mair    (no quotation marks)   you will find many references to what I discovered.

The article also affords ample coverage of the architectural wonders (bridges, houses, city gates, residential areas, canals, etc.) of Quanzhou and other cities of the region. 

I wish to make a special note of the Hindu associations of the Kaiyuan temple, which help to explain and underscore the appearance of Hanuman and other Indian iconography on its famous stone pagodas.

Kaiyuan Temple was one of the few surviving Hindu temples in mainland China.

Behind its main hall "Mahavira Hall", there are some columns with fragments as well as vigraha (icon) of Lord Vishnu from a Vishnu temple built in 1283 by the Tamil Ainnurruvar Valanjiyar Merchant community in Quanzhou. The carvings are dispersed across five primary sites in Quanzhou and the neighboring areas. They were made in the South Indian style, and share close similarities with 13th-century temples constructed in the Chola Nadu region in Tamil Nadu. Nearly all of the carvings were carved with greenish-gray granite, which was widely available in the nearby hills and used in the region's local architecture.[5] In 1983, the Kaiyuan Temple was designated as a national temple.

The Silk trade by sea brought the South Indians to China and the Chinese to Southern Indian ports and it is very likely the Indians took the knowledge of Silk cultivation and fabrics from China back to India. China had a significant influence on South India; examples of Chinese fishing nets in Kochi and fine china pottery still referred to as "Chini chatti" or Chinese pot in Tamil.


In my long-ago researches on the HanumanSun Wukong connection at the Kaiyuan Temple, I also came across remnant stone lingams and yonis (ancient symbols of divine gendered power) in and around Quanzhou.

Now the same newspaper continues its coverage of Quanzhou, this time focusing on a particular, spectacular type of tree that lent its name to the city:

Explore Quanzhou, a port city along the Maritime Silk Road People's Daily Online (1/25/24)

"The city of Zayton (Quanzhou) is one of the largest ports in the world. A great number of merchants have swarmed into this city. Goods pile up like hills. The scene is incredible," wrote Italian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) in his travel notes.

I had long known of this fabulous port city by its indigenous Chinese name, Quánzhōu 泉州, but in texts from the late middle ages, it came to be known in foreign sources as Zaiton and the like (see below).  I always wondered exactly where this name came from, but it is only now, after reading this article in the People's Daily that I got a clearer idea of its origin.  Clear as mud, that is.

Zayton, derived from "Citong," the Chinese name for the Erythrina tree native to India and Malaysia, is an example of a calque – a linguistic term for a word borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word translation.

During the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern dynasties (220-589), Quanzhou was already a hub for foreign trade. Around this time, the Erythrina tree, originating from overseas, was introduced to the region.

In the Five Dynasties period (907-960), military governor Liu Congxiao undertook the expansion of Quanzhou. Part of this development included planting Erythrina trees around the city walls, giving Quanzhou its name, Citong.

Perhaps it would be better to refer to "Citong" as Quanzhou's nickname, like "Big Apple" for New York.


Having read the People's Daily article about Quanzhou, I learned a lot, but I was also flummoxed by many aspects of the arboreal moniker of the city.  Consequently, I have embarked upon this quest to answer as many questions as I can about the Erythrina trees that line the streets of Quanzhou.  They are called "flame trees", "coral trees", "olive trees", etc. in English — a profusion of confusion among these names — and cìtóng 刺桐 in Chinese, where cì 刺 signifies "prickly" or "thorny" and tóng 桐 refers to various trees related to the tung tree (now distinguished as oil-tung 油桐), particularly paulownia. (source)

The typologically best known (because of its economic value) species is the tung tree.

Vernicia fordii (usually known as the tung tree (Chinese: , tóng) and also as the tung-oil or tungoil tree (油桐), the kalo nut tree, and the China wood-oil tree) is a species of flowering plant in the spurge family native to southern China, Myanmar, and northern Vietnam.

(VHM:  Note that it is a Southeast Asian plant.)

The tung tree is valued for tung oil, which is derived from the seeds of the tree. Tung oil, also called China wood oil or nut oil, has traditionally been used in lamps in China. In modern times, it is used as an ingredient in paint, varnish, and caulk. It is also used as a wood finish for furniture and other wooden objects. After processing to remove gums in the oil, it was also used as a motor fuel. Marco Polo wrote in the 13th century "The Chinese take some lime and chopped hemp, and these they knead together with a certain wood oil; and when the three are thoroughly amalgamated they hold like any glue, and with this mixture they paint their ships".


This is why the mention of tóng 桐 makes people think of oil, but not all types of tóng 桐 trees, including the one that is the focus of this post, cìtóng 刺桐 ("Erythrina"), produce oil.

I would like to know why the 10th-century governor of the region, Liú Cóngxiào 留從效 (906-962) planted cìtóng 刺桐 trees to line the streets of Quanzhou.  Was it for shade?  For the red color of their flowers?   Not for large-scale production of oil, although many people adhere to that interpretation of the name.  There are all sorts of theories.  The city is still distinguished by its cìtóng 刺桐 ("Erythrina") trees, to the extent that it has the nickname Cìtóng chéng 刺桐城 ("Erythrina City").

Perhaps Erythrina had multiple purposes / functions that were appreciated by the people of Quanzhou.

More about the plethora of names by which the city is known in various languages and romanizations:

Quanzhou (also known as Zayton or Zaiton in British and American historical sources) is the atonal pinyin romanization of the city's Chinese name 泉州, using its pronunciation in the Mandarin dialect. The name derives from the city's former status as the seat of the imperial Chinese Quan ("Spring") Prefecture. Ch'üan-chou was the Wade-Giles romanization of the same name; other forms include Chwanchow-foo, Chwan-chau fu, Chwanchew, Ts'üan-chou, Tswanchow-foo, Tswanchau, T'swan-chau fu, Ts'wan-chiu, Ts'wan-chow-fu, Thsiouan-tchéou-fou, and Thsíouan-chéou-fou. The romanizations Chuan-chiu, Choan-Chiu, and Shanju reflect the local Hokkien pronunciation.

The Postal Map name of the city was "Chinchew", a variant of Chincheo, the Portuguese and Spanish transcription of the local Hokkien name for Zhangzhou, the major Fujianese port trading with Macao and Manila in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is uncertain when or why British sailors first applied the name to Quanzhou.

Its Arabic name Zaiton or "Zayton" (زيتون), once popular in English, means "[City] of Olives" and is a calque of Quanzhou's former Chinese nickname Citong Cheng meaning "tung-tree city, which is derived from the avenues of oil-bearing tung trees ordered to be planted around the city by the city's 10th-century ruler Liu Congxiao. Variant transcriptions from the Arabic name include Caiton, Çaiton, Çayton, Zaytún, Zaitûn, Zaitún, and Zaitūn. The etymology of satin derives from "Zaitun".


As for "satin":

"smooth, lustrous silken cloth; silk fabric with a very glossy surface and the back less so," mid-14c., from Old French satin (14c.), perhaps from Arabic (atlas) zaytuni, literally "(satin) from Zaitun," name of a place in China, perhaps modern Quanzhou in Fukien province, a major port in the Middle Ages with a resident community of European traders.

On this theory the form of the word was influenced in French by Latin seta "silk." OED finds the Arabic connection etymologically untenable and takes the French word as being from Latin seta via a Late Latin or Vulgar Latin *pannus setinus "silken cloth."

As an adjective from mid-15c., "made of silk." By c. 1600 as "clothed in satin;" by 1826 as "resembling satin."


From French satin, which is derived from "Zaitun", the Arabic name for the Chinese city of Quanzhou, itself derived from Arabic زَيْتُون(zaytūn, Zayton; olive), from phono-semantic matching of Chinese 刺桐 (MC tshjeH duwng, “coral tree”) in 刺桐城 (MC tshjeH duwng dzyeng, “coral tree town”), an old name for Quanzhou.


Now I'm really confused.  How did the Arabic word for "olive" get mixed up in all this?  

Etymology 1


Related to زَيْت(zayt, olive oil); but the stem extension, unknown in Arabic morphology, directly relates to Aramaic, where -ōnā forms diminutive nouns; developing there the sense of an “olive tree” found for the simplex across Northwest Semitic to what is attested as Classical Mandaic ࡆࡉࡕࡅࡍࡀ(zētōnā, little olive tree) and then attaining based on the idea of the fruit being a miniature olive tree the meaning “olive”, as well as retaining the meaning of an olive tree.

olive or fruit tree

Etymology 2

Phono-semantic matching of Chinese 刺桐 (MC tshjeH duwng, “coral tree”) in 刺桐城 (MC tshjeH duwng dzyeng, “coral tree town”), an old name for Quanzhou.

زَيْتُون (zaytūnm

(historical) Zayton, the medieval trade name of the ports of Zhangzhou and Quanzhou in Fujian, China


Methinks I've followed Quanzhou's nickname "Zayton" (which started out as Minnan / Hokkien chhì-tông 刺桐 / MSM  刺桐 ("prickly / thorny tung tree", etc.)  down a rabbit hole with many branching burrows.

But now back to the scientific and vernacular names for the Erythrina plant:

The generic name is derived from the Greek word ερυθρóς erythros, meaning "red", referring to the flower color of certain species. 

Particularly in horticulture, the name coral tree is used as a collective term for these plants. Flame tree is another vernacular name, but may refer to a number of unrelated plants as well. Many species of Erythrina have bright red flowers, and this may be the origin of the common name. However, the growth of the branches can resemble the shape of sea coral rather than the color of Corallium rubrum specifically, and this is an alternative source for the name. Other popular names, usually local and particular to distinct species, liken the flowers' red hues to those of a male chicken's wattles, and/or the flower shape to its leg spurs. Commonly seen Spanish names for any local species are bucaré, frejolillo or porotillo, and in Afrikaans some are called kafferboom (from the species name Erythrina caffra). Mullumurikku is a widespread name in Kerala.


When all is said and done — up to this point —  what do we know about the relationship between the city of Quanzhou and the tree (actually a genus of plants in the pea family) from which it gets its nickname?  Here I wish to enter a cautionary note which I take from Hugh Clark, the foremost Western scholar on the history of Quanzhou.

I asked Hugh the following:

I realize you're travelling in Crete, Greece, and Albania (lucky you, Hugh!), but do you know off the top of your head whether the nickname Zayton comes from the Arabic for "olive" or from Erythrina (flame tree), or something else?  The name, whatever kind of tree it indicates, supposedly derives from when the 10th-century military governor Liu Congxiao undertook the expansion of Quanzhou. Part of this development included planting Erythrina trees around the city walls.  Were they cìtóng (Minnan / Hokkien chhì-tông 刺桐)?

To which Hugh replied:

“Know” is a loaded word! I “know” what locals say. Liu Congxiao planted the citong trees to provide shade. Arabs corrupted the local pronunciation to come up with Zayton.

Meanwhile, we need to check out "Indian coral tree", "sunshine tree", tiger's claw", and a host of other designations for the trees that Liu Congxiao planted and others have maintained through the centuries since.

The following information is extracted from the Baidu encyclopedia entry on cìtóng 刺桐Erythrina variegata L.) (translation courtesy of GT):

Erythrina variegata L. is a tree plant of the genus Erythrina in the Fabaceae family. The bark is grey-brown; the branches have conical black prickles; the petioles are hairless and thornless; the flowers are densely packed and grow in opposite pairs; the peduncle is hairy and the corolla is red; the fruit is cylindrical and slightly curved; [9] Flowering period is March; Fruit period is August. [10 ] Erythrina is named because of the conical thorns between its branches. [11 ] Erythrina is native to coastal forests from India to Oceania. It is now cultivated in Taiwan, Fujian, Guangdong, China, and other regions, and is also distributed in Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Erythrina is commonly found next to trees or near seaside streams, or planted in parks. [9] It likes a warm, humid environment with sufficient sunlight. It is drought- and moisture-tolerant. It has no strict soil requirements and prefers fertile, well-drained, sandy soil. Hardy to cold. [12 ] The propagation method of Erythrina is cutting propagation. [10 ] The dried bark or root bark of Eryngium japonica is used as a medicine. It tastes bitter, pungent, and has a neutral nature. It can dispel wind and remove dampness, relax muscles, and unblock meridians, kill insects, and relieve itching. [13 ] The flowers and leaves of Erythrina are colorful, showing a scene of thousands of trees blooming in spring and summer. It can be planted in parks and street green spaces. In addition, Erythrina wood is white, light and soft, and can be used as a variety of daily necessities and joinery materials. [14] Erythrina has a strong ability to resist pollution and can purify the air very well. It can increase the concentration of negative ions in the air, increase air humidity, and reduce ambient temperature. In addition, it has the function of retaining dust and reducing noise. [15]

VHM:  Notice the medicinal uses halfway through and the environmental benefits mentioned in the last two sentences.

刺桐(Erythrina variegata L.)是豆科刺桐属乔木植物。树皮灰褐色;分枝有圆锥形黑色皮刺;叶柄无毛,无刺;花密集,成对着生;花梗被茸毛,花冠红色;果实为圆柱形,微弯曲; [9]花期3月;果期8月。 [10]刺桐因枝干间有圆锥形棘刺,故名。 [11]

刺桐原产印度至大洋洲海岸林中,现在在中国台湾、福建、广东、等地区有种植,马来西亚、印度尼西亚、柬埔寨、老挝、越南亦有分布。刺桐常见于树旁或近海溪边,或栽于公园, [9]喜温暖湿润、光照充足的环境,耐旱也耐湿,对土壤要求不严,宜肥沃排水良好的沙质土壤,不甚耐寒。 [12]
刺桐的繁殖方式为扦插繁殖。 [10]
刺桐干皮或根皮人药,味苦、辛、性平、祛风除湿、舒筋通络、杀虫止痒。 [13]刺桐花叶色彩绚丽,春夏之时呈现出万木争荣景象,可种植于公园、街头绿地。另外,刺桐木材白色轻软,可作各种日用品及细工材料。 [14]刺桐抗污染的能力较强,能很好地净化空气,能使空气中的负离子浓增加,提高空气湿度,降低环境温度。此外,它还有留灰尘、减弱噪音的功能。 [15]

Cìtóng 刺桐 ("Erythrina") is recorded in Běncǎo gāngmù 本草綱目 (Compendium of Materia Medica [1596]), as originating from the Guangdong area (Léizhōu 雷州 and South Sea Nánhǎi 南海).  It is also to be found in the southern botanical treatise Nánfāng cǎomù zhuàng 南方草木狀 (Plants of the Southern Region [3rd c.]).


To summarize:

Cìtóng 刺桐 ("Erythrina") is a Southeast Asian plant imported to south central East Asia for various ornamental and environmental purposes, but not for large scale industrial or agricultural use.  Its Sinitic name was transcriptionally borrowed into Arabic and other foreign languages as Zayton, etc.


Selected readings

  • "Slaves and clients; Arabic Mamluks and mawlas: a fishy Turkic tail" (5/11/21) — Blacks in medieval China; extensive, annotated bibliography; Kunlun slaves; Bulgars; Arabs and Persians in medieval Guangzhou / Canton; Muslim traders; Huang Chao (835-884) rebellion and the massacre of large numbers of Muslims
  • Angela Schottenhammer, ed., The Emporium of the World:  Maritime Quanzhou, 1000–-1400.  Series:  Sinica Leidensia, Volume: 49.  Leiden:  Brill, 2000.
  • Hugh R. Clark's many publications on medieval Quanzhou
  • Billy So's two volumes centering on Quanzhou:
    • Prosperity, Region, and Institutions in Maritime China: The South Fukien Pattern, 946-
      Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center and Harvard University Press, 2000.
    • An Exposition of Zitong’s Prosperous Past 刺桐夢華錄 (translated version of
      Prosperity, Region, and Institutions in Maritime China). Beijing: Zhejiang University
      Press, 2012. [Chinese]

[Thanks to James Fanell]


  1. Eugene Anderson said,

    January 31, 2024 @ 8:40 pm

    I note the bark relieves itching. Other Erythrinas do this. E. standleyana of south Mexico is an amazing rash and itch cure–a strong tea of the bark will really fix an itching rash.

  2. Chris Button said,

    January 31, 2024 @ 8:46 pm

    Its Arabic name Zaiton or "Zayton" (زيتون), once popular in English, means "[City] of Olives" and is a calque of Quanzhou's former Chinese nickname Citong Cheng

    That seems remarkably close phonologically to be purely a calque.

  3. Mike Grubb said,

    February 1, 2024 @ 9:50 am

    "It can dispel wind and remove dampness, relax muscles, and unblock meridians, kill insects, and relieve itching." Being unfamiliar with traditional Chinese medicine, I had to do some quick internet checking to "understand" some of these expressions (like "remove dampness" and "unblock meridians"). I'm glad I did, since I had initially thought "dispel wind" was a euphemism for reducing flatulence. Oh boy, would THAT have been a misreading.

  4. YYDS said,

    February 1, 2024 @ 4:01 pm

    Hi, I am from Quanzhou city and I am glad to see your article.
    I want to correct that Kaiyuan Temple might not be an only Hindu temple. Actually it might be a Buddhism temple in general. It is true there are Hindu architecture there. But they were just using it from an broken Hindu temple, when they are building the Buddhism temple.
    "When the main hall was rebuilt in the 17th century, Hindu-themed architectural components were used in this mature Chinese Buddhist monastery, which can be described as a very rare cultural phenomenon, which reflects the diversity and tolerance of Quanzhou's local culture and the broad mind of traditional Chinese culture."

    feel free to lmk what do you think of this! Thanks!

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 1, 2024 @ 6:02 pm


    Thank you for your comment.

    If you carefully read what the People's Daily article says about the Hindu background and components of the Kaiyuan Temple and its environs, it does not contradict what you say about the architectural components of the temple.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 1, 2024 @ 7:48 pm

    The name of the tung-oil tree is comparatively important in Min; older dictionaries suggest aspirated-onset /tʰaŋ5/ for Amoy, though currently in e.g. Taiwan we find rather /taŋ5/ regarded as a colloquial form (esp./only [?] tâng-iû 'tung oil') vs. "literary" /toŋ5/. At any rate FWIW it is clear that chhì-tông 刺桐 'Erythrina' is some kind of late northern loan.

    However interestingly it does seem that Erythrina is native to parts of the western Pacific including the Philippines and Taiwan? The Webs have some interesting but thinly researched info on names/cultural positions of the tree in indigenous cultures of the region. IDK.

    Re: calque, it doesn't make any sense to say that an Arabic word meaning 'olive' is a "calque" of a Chinese word meaning 'thorny tung-tree'. Perhaps the author meant "kinda a loan but shifted so as to be meaningful in the target language" i.e. some kind of "Fremdwort", or maybe there is a more precise term.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 1, 2024 @ 7:50 pm

    oh yeah… I have seen this term "kalo nut tree" for tung-oil tree somewhere before but haven't uncovered whether it's real/accurate or what language it reflects. info welcome…

  8. YYDS said,

    February 2, 2024 @ 3:33 am

    My main point is, I won't say Kaiyuan tample is a Hindu temple.

    In your article, the wiki said "Kaiyuan Temple was one of the few surviving Hindu temples in mainland China." I don't totally agree with this.

    I won't categorize Kaiyuan tample as a Hindu temple, I will say it is a Buddhism tample/ Chinese Buddhism tample.
    Logical similarly, we won't say bright colours is red, but we say bright colours are bright colours.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    February 2, 2024 @ 9:01 am

    "My main point is, I won't say Kaiyuan tample is a Hindu temple."

    Nobody is saying it IS a Hindu temple; they said that there WAS a Hindu temple at that location.

    After the destruction of the Hindu temple, it's all too obvious that the major temple at that location is Buddhist.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    February 6, 2024 @ 9:16 am

    To show that the Indian background of Quanzhou, especially that of the Kaiyuan Temple, is still a living presence in China, here is a note I just received from Zhang Xing, a professor of South Asian Studies at Peking University:

    "We used to take our students to Quanzhou from time to time to see the temples, museums, bridges etc. that are related to Indian culture. This time I'm going with some friends from Germany with similar plans, so we'll definitely be visiting the Kaiyuan Temple."

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