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  • The Honey Nectar Peach and the Idea of Shanghai in Late Imperial China
  • Mark Swislocki (bio)

The provenance of the honey nectar peach is not known; some say Beijing, others say Kaifeng. No matter—after all, when a mandarin orange crosses the Huai River, it turns into a bitter orange; and when a plum crosses the Yellow River, it turns into an apricot. How could the relocation [to Shanghai] be good were it not for the rich soil and lively water? Whatever its origin is, it does not really matter.

—Chu Hua, Treatise on the Honey Nectar Peach, 1814

Toward the end of his first China travelogue, published in 1847, the Victorian botanist Robert Fortune reflected on the accomplishments of his “three years’ wanderings in the northern provinces of China,” remarking:

“Amongst the more important of the acquisitions which I made in the vicinity of Shanghae, I must not forget to mention a fine and large variety of peach, which comes into the markets there about the middle of August, and remains in perfection for about ten days. It is grown in the peach orchards, a few miles to the south of the city; and it is quite a usual thing to see peaches of this variety eleven inches in circumferences and twelve ounces in weight. This [End Page 1] is, probably, what some writers call the Peking peach, about which such exaggerated stories have been told.”1

Fortune traveled to China shortly after the signing of the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, which opened Shanghai, along with four other port cities, to foreign settlement and trade. Fortune’s charge, which he carried from the Royal Horticultural Society, was to collect specimens of twenty-two alimentary and ornamental plants. Fortune soon fell out with the Horticultural Society, but the 17,000 tea-plant seeds he shipped from Shanghai to Calcutta helped the East India Company establish Britain’s first commercial tea plantations in India and establish itself as a world-class grower of this vital crop.2 Plants like the “Peking peach,” along with “new azaleas, camellias, chrysanthemums, peonies, and new species of roses,” which Fortune shipped back to Britain, further bolstered the evolving British imperial self-image as a paramount “governor of nature” more generally.3

For Fortune himself, the Shanghai peach was a useful subject to turn to at the close of a book designed to expose myths about Chinese agriculture and simultaneously to promote the significance of his own botanical discoveries.4 On the one hand, there was no shortage of mythology and lore associated with the peach in China, for “hardly any other tree or fruit in China is so heavily overlaid with symbolism as the peach.”5 By the time of Fortune’s arrival, peaches had been closely associated with the quest for immortality for two millennia, ever since the Queen Mother of the West chided Emperor Wu of the Han (r. 140–86 BCE) for presuming that he could grow the peaches of immortality that she cultivated in her gardens in the fabled Kunlun Mountains. Several centuries later the poet Tao Qian (365–427) immortalized the image of peach blossoms as a portal to a utopian paradise in his “Peach Blossom Spring.” Peaches were also an important component of Chinese aspirations to create a cosmopolitan empire and were a symbol of “all the exotic things longed for and the unknown things hoped for.”6 On the other hand, while the qualities of the Shanghai peach were somewhat more diminutive than those [End Page 2] described by the Horticultural Society—“cultivated in the Emperor’s Garden and weighing 2 lbs.”—they also provided Fortune with an opportunity to boast of the bountiful crops and products that he witnessed first hand in Shanghai.7 He acknowledged a challenge in this regard, since he was writing in the wake of predecessors who had written with such hyperbole about the agriculture of southern China that it was not clear what terms were left for him to describe “the rich plains of Shanghae.” By laying claim to a fruit that grew neither in the capital in Beijing nor in the more familiar terrain of the south, Fortune placed himself at...