Red Lanterns Hanging from the Trees

from the Tell you a True China series of stories

by Wen Zhang

      In the fall of 2014, I visited Wenli village in Qingzhou county, Shandong province, a village that is often called persimmon ditch for the many persimmon trees in the surrounding valley.

Eastlit June 2015: Shizi Gou 1 by Wen Zhang      The village is a famous source of persimmons in China. There is an abundance of persimmon trees in the valley, many of which have been growing for hundreds of years. Looking downwards from the mountain, the persimmon fruits resemble lucky red lanterns hanging from the branches. The residents of the village subsist largely on the harvesting and processing of persimmons, hawthorns and walnuts. Hawthorns are usually cut into pieces and sun dried, while persimmons are flattened and exported to the countries like Japan and Korea as snacks. Each tree has an owner, and the number of trees a family owns depends on both the size of the family and the output of the trees. Each family member can be assigned up to 200 jin of persimmons. Nowadays, the younger family members prefer to live in the big cities, so most of the residents in the village are middle-aged or seniors. Residents also find jobs in food processing plants during the off-season.

Eastlit June 2015: Shizi Gou 2 by Wen Zhang      Persimmon trees can be found throughout the valley and up to halfway up the surrounding hills. The trees are fairly tall, so a long ladder is needed to get to the upper branches. The job of picking persimmons is usually done by the male members of the family. Special tools are needed for harvesting the fruit. A long stick with an iron fork at the end is used to pry the fruit from the branches. A cloth basket attached to the fork is used to catch the persimmons. The rope tie to the basket needs to be as long as the tree is tall, so that it can be lowered to the ground when it’s full.

      In the village, many women and seniors can be seen processing persimmons in the yards.  They peel the skin of the fruits and tie them to a string to hang from a wooden frame. After about a month, the fruits will be flat, dried, and ready to be packed. There is a layer of white powder on the dried fruits, which is said to contain cancer-preventing vitamins. However, this is not supported by scientific evidence and is likely a rumor started to increase persimmon demand.

Eastlit June 2015: Shizi Gou 3 by Wen Zhang      When I travelled to Persimmon Ditch, I noticed that some dried persimmons were caked in white, while others had only a thin layer of the powder. I questioned one merchant, who told me that the heavily powdered persimmons were rolled in flour. Another merchant, who was selling both heavily and lightly powdered persimmons, said that the difference came from the different varieties of persimmons that existed. He informed me that a coating of flour will fall when patting, while naturally formed powder would stay on the fruit.

      On the road in front of our hotel, I met an old humpbacked carrying a large bag on his back. He invited me to his house nearby. It was small and dark, and there were many empty water bottles piled in the yard. The house obviously did not have a hostess. The old man told me he is 80 years old and single. His parents died when he was very young. As the eldest in the family, he has to take care of his three younger brothers. After his last brother was married, he was too old and poor to get married himself. Now he makes money selling used water bottles to a factory. A warm smile spread across his face as the sun was setting. One could glimpse the true meaning of life talking to that old man.

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