Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 7, April 30 - May 6


Hey Ayi:
Since I have been in China I have seen all kinds of things floating in the air from black soot to silver blimps. But what is all the white stuff floating around Beijing this spring?

Fluffy Du Preez

Dear Fluffy,
You are referring to Beijingís springtime snow, the cotton-like fluff that comes off poplar trees in late April and May every year. The fluff comes from small seed pods that burst as the the weather warms up. Beijing has a second period of white snow in May when the willow trees perform the same trick, releasing white fluff known in English as willow catkins.

Both of these kinds of fluff commonly cause hayfever and other mild allergies, so if you find yourself red-eyed and sneezing in the springtime, you can probably blame it on the poplar and willow trees. Poplars are not all bad though. In 1956, the poplarís hardiness and speed of growth made it the ideal tree for the PRCís first large scale tree planting project, undertaken to prevent agricultural fields from erosion by wind and water. Poplars grow well in the dry, harsh climates of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Northeast China.

The ever-caring Beijing city government has taken hayfever-causing fluff into account in their plan for the greening of Beijing and their intention is to slowly replace all the willows and poplars with gingko trees which donít cause allergies, have leaves that can be made into medicine and are reputed to help reduce air pollution by absorbing and processing certain air-borne pollutants.

Poplars have a short life span and generally only last about 30 years, so aside from the usual destruction that accompanies construction projects and road building, tree-felling will not be necessary. The Beijing City Forestry Department claim to have planted 46 million gingko trees in nurseries outside the city and intend to put them all over the city as poplars die and willow trees get felled by construction projects. The trees are multi-purpose. Grown in densely planted orchards, the leaves are harvested regularly and used for traditional Chinese medicine. When the tree is eight years old, its leaves are no longer good for making medicine, but the tree stands about three meters tall and is ready for life in the big city outside the orchard.

So, Fluffy, enjoy the white floating stuff while you can, because it wonít be around for much longer. As you contemplate the passing of the poplars and the willows, I recommend you read one of Mao Zedongís best-loved poems, Reply to Li Shuyi. The poem was written for his Red Army comrade Li Shuyi whose husband died at the same time Mao lost his first wife. The Great Helmsman uses a popular metaphor to describe his wife and her husband: the poplar and willow trees respectively.



A Reply to Li Shuyi
by Chairman Mao
I lost my poplar (wife) and you lost your willow (husband)
Their souls fly up into the sky
They ask Wu Gang for something to drink
Wu Gang gives them osmanthus wine
Chang E the lonely goddess begins to dance
To dance for their loyal souls
Hearing good news from the earth
They cry buckets of tears


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