How to plant trees wrong in China: Days 1-3

One of the awesome things about our neighourhood is that you can plant trees pretty much wherever. No vegetable gardens, because then our neighbourhood would be nothing but parking spaces and fields of leeks. But trees, bushes and flowers? Knock yourselves out.

Last year I tried to plant a ton of magnolias (玉兰), but the guys at the market saw me coming a mile away and sold me every kind of tree but magnolias. Whatever; they’re trees, they’re growing.

This spring planting season, however, began with me planting a peach tree and a “Chinese toon” (香椿) tree in the last two available spots in the shared grass area around our building, and ended with me uprooting them at the earnest badgering of two anxious neighbours while one of them burned incense to the tree and flower god.

Incense to the tree and flower god

It gave me yet another opportunity to stumble down the rabbit hole of traditional Chinese taboos and superstitions (note: there are many such rabbit holes in China!). And it went something like this…

Planting Trees Wrong in China — Day 1
One of my neighbours told me today that I can’t plant 香椿 (“Chinese toon / fragrant cedar / Toona sinensis”?) on the back side of the house, which is apparently what I’ve done. I’ll defer to her knowledge about trees; she’s over 50 and grew up in a Chinese village. I asked if it was because the sun was no good there. Nope, nothing to do with sunlight. I kept asking why, and she just kept saying that in China you don’t plant 香椿s behind houses, especially according to the older people. (Never mind that what she calls “behind” is the front and only entrance to our stairwell. In China front/back orients to the sun, not the front door.).

So I asked on 微信 (aka WeChat aka Chinese Facebook), and got a lot of replies:

Folk culture. 民俗文化

It’s maybe a superstition. 可能是迷信

This is a superstitious saying. Because Chinese toon buds are edible, and tasty, so as soon as Chinese toons bloom people come an pick them and eat them, so people turn it into a metaphor for not ever getting out of a predicament, meaning the family’s days will never get better. The family members won’t succeed in whatever they do. 这是一种迷信说法。因为香椿芽可食用,味道鲜美。所以春天刚发芽,就被人摘下来吃了。有人就把这种现象比喻成永无出头之日。意思是家里的日子一直都不会好转。家里人做什么事也不会成功。

This is feudal superstition, don’t bother about her. Don’t plant willows in the front, don’t plant mulberries in the back — they’re all superstitions. We just believe in Jesus, not in whatever else. 这是封建迷信,别打理他,前不种柳树,后不种桑树,都是迷信,我们只信耶稣,别的什么都不信

She means you planting that tree in that place will bring bad luck. 他的意思是你把那个树种到那个位置会给你带来倒霉的事情

You also can’t plant mulberry trees, locust trees, willow trees, pine trees, cypress trees or banyan trees in the yard. 5000 years of history have not only given us glorious, splendid culture, but also innumerable superstitions and taboos. Although not many people can explain clearly why. 院子里不能种的树还有桑树,槐树,柳树,松树,柏树,榕树。五千年的历史不仅给了我们光辉灿烂的文化,还有数不清的迷信和禁忌。尽管没有几个人能说得清为什么。

Actually (I) don’t know this rule. Here we say in the front don’t plant mulberries, in the back don’t plant willows. 倒是不知道这种规定,我们这儿是说前不栽桑(桑树),后不栽柳(柳树)

I just Baidu’d it for you. The approximate meaning is: “A single tree is inauspicious. A single one is unfavourable for the propagation of later generations, generally they should all be planted in the front! Furthermore must not just plant one!” Chinese people are rather superstitious; us Christians don’t need to care about this. 刚帮你百度了一下,大概意思是“一颗就不吉利,单一,对子孙后代繁殖不利,一般都是栽在前面!而且要不要栽一颗!” 中国人比较迷信咱们基督徒是不是可以不用管这个

Nah, my mother-in-law’s yard has a Chinese toon. 不会吧,俺婆婆院子里就有颗香椿树

There’s no problem with Chinese toons. But apparently according to fēngshuǐ, you can’t plant mulberry trees. Chinese toons are not problem. But this one is too close to the house and might obstruct the windows. 香椿树没有问题吧。但是似乎依据风水,不能种桑树。香椿没问题。但是这一棵离着房子太近可能会挡住窗户。。

I also want to know… [awkward] 我也想知道…[尴尬]

So what about how the front and back of our house is full of peach and pear trees and also cherry trees? This is certainly some place’s special custom. Today I also heard a coworker say in his hometown you can’t plant mulberries in the yard because “mulberry” and “mourning/corpse/make funeral arrangements” sound the same. [sweat] 我们家房前屋后种满桃树和梨树还有樱桃树咋说?这肯定是哪里的很特别的风俗。今天还听同事说他们老家不能在院子里种桑树,因为“桑”和“丧”是一个音。[流汗]

This saying is Chinese older generation’s old thinking and old views. The previous age’s old people pay particular attention to this. 这种说法是中国老一辈的旧思想旧观念的说法,上了年纪的老人讲究这些。

Planting Trees Wrong in China — Day 2
rejected tree I just cannot win with trees in China this spring! Another neighbour (not the one from yesterday) just came down to 说说 about another tree, this time a peach tree (桃树). And she was in earnest. Turns out you can’t plant peach trees in the 院子 — like the “yard” of a house or courtyard; they’re supposed to go on mountains or public parks. Because something about husbands dying(!) and how it will bring bad luck and all the residents in our building will be affected. I couldn’t catch all her explanation because she’s a Qingdao 奶奶 (imagine a small-town Texan talking to an international student).

And then she went out and burned incense and paper money to the Tree & Flower god and everything (I am *not* making this up) before trying to uproot a bush (not mine) that was threatening to block her windows, telling it sorry and that she was going to move it to a new home (*not* true: she hacked it to pieces with an axe, poured toilet cleaner on the roots and threw the branches in the garbage. I’m assuming the Tree and Flower god is either not that bright, or very forgiving…).

Incense and bush-killing

So I asked on 微信 again, and got a whole nother pile of replies:

So painful. Just plant what you want to plant, so long as you don’t disturb others you’re OK. China has so many superstitious ideas, what can you do? 好痛苦,想种什么就种什么,只要不影响别人就ok了,中国那么多迷信思想,怎么办?

I’d be worried about offending the peach blossoms! [snicker] 担心犯桃花[偷笑]

Just plant whatever you like to plant [grin] 你喜欢种什么就种什么吧[呲牙]

Chinese superstitions 中国迷信

So many go in for superstitions!! 搞迷信的真多!!

Frankly, I’ve never heard of this, you should Baidu it and see if you can get an answer. 说实话,我都没听说过,你百度一下试试看能不能找到答案。

There’s a proverb that says: “Don’t plant mulberry in the front, don’t plant willow in the back, don’t plant ‘ghost clap’ (also called ‘executioner’) in the yard.” Can’t plant mulberry in the front because “mulberry” sounds like “mourning/corpse”, so it’s feared to be inauspicious if you go out your door and see “mulberry”(“mourning”). In the back can’t plant willow. The sayings differ. One says it has to do with funerals and interment of the dead. Because “mourning staffs” and “soul-beckoning banners” are made from willow, and behind the tomb willow trees are planted as “money trees” and “ghost trees”, it’s easy for willow to make people think of funerals, so it’s inauspicious. Another saying says that willows don’t bear fruit. If planted behind the house in the backyard, it’s feared to be harmful, and will cause the family to not have descendents. “Ghost clap” refers to poplars. When the wind blows, poplar leaves have a “hua-la-hua-la” crashing sound, like a ghost clapping. People fear planting poplar in the courtyard will attract demons; it’s hugely inauspicious. In Shandong province’s Linqing region there’s a similar folk belief. If you plant mulberry in the front and willow in the back, it’s equal to losing the population, can’t “preserve”(“willow”) the later generations. “Executioner” refers to peach trees because peach blossoms, peach branches, and peach fruit are all blood red, so demons and ghosts all want to live in peach trees, so people don’t dare plant them in the yard. In Jiao county, peach trees can only be planted behind the house because it’s believed peach trees have evil energy/influence. If planted in the front yard, the roots will run into the house, and the people’s lives will have sorrow. In Henan province’s Fangcheng county, people also dread to plant peach trees in the yard because it’s believed peach wood has magic power. Whichever family plants peach trees will have lots of evil and disaster. It’s also said that planting peach trees is to escape from famine, because “peach” and “escape” are homophones. Among the people there’s also a saying: “Before the door a peach stump, invites wind without end”. So peach wood helps avoid evil spirits, but definitely not peach trees.俗话说:”前不栽桑,后不栽柳,院中不栽”鬼拍手”(又说”刽子手”)。院前不栽桑树,是因”桑”与”丧”同音,出门见桑(丧),惟恐不吉。后不栽柳,说法不一,一说是与殡葬死人有关。因”丧杖”、”招魂幡”都是柳木做的,坟墓后边又要栽柳树作”摇钱树”、”墓树”。所以柳树也易被人想到丧事,不吉;另一说是讲柳树不结籽,若栽于房后、院后,还恐妨害,感应得这家人家也无子嗣后代了。”鬼拍手”是指杨树。风一刮,杨树叶哗啦哗啦地响,像是”鬼拍手”。院内栽上杨树,还恐招来鬼魅,大不吉利,山东临清一带也有类似的俗信。如果前栽桑后栽柳,就合丧(桑)失人口,留(柳)不住后代,”刽子手”指的是桃树。因为桃花、桃枝、桃实都是血红色的,妖魔鬼怪都愿意在桃树上住,所以不敢种在院里。胶县一带,桃树只能种在后院,禁忌栽到前院,俗以为桃树上有邪气。如果种到前院,树根扎到屋里,人就有性命之忧。河南方城一带也忌院内种桃树,俗以为桃木有法力。谁家种桃树,主邪灾多。也有说种桃树主逃荒要饭的。这是因”桃”与”逃”谐音的缘故,民间还有”门前一株桃,讨气讨不了”的说法。所以说,是桃木避邪,并不是桃树避邪。

This is related to superstition! It has nothing to do with you. 这和迷信有关!和你一点关系都没有。

Folkways and customs 民风民俗

Planting Trees Wrong in China — Day 3
So this afternoon I transplanted the fēngshuǐ-offending, superstitious-neighbour-triggering trees from our shared yard to the public park area beside the preschool, where the neighbourhood kids play, the elderly sit in the sun, and retirees do taiji and group exercise.

The students who peed on my treeTwo of my students ran over while I was planting the second one:

“Mr. Lu! Are you done planting? Mr. Lu! Are you done planting? Mr. Lu! Are you done planting? Mr. Lu! Are you done planting?”

“Hold on… uh, yep. I’m done now.”

“Good! I have to pee!”

These poor trees just cannot catch a break.

Here they are, hopefully in their final resting places:

Peach tree 桃树 Fragrant Cedar aka Chinese toon 香椿树

Selling money gods

Selling money gods
Inside a god shop near Licunji, Qingdao’s biggest traditional market.

See also: Ho! Ho! Who? Santa VS. China’s God of Wealth

A Fushan grave, one week after Tomb-Sweeping Day

Mountain grave mound
Mountain grave
Food and flower offerings were scattered all over the freshly swept grave mounds on Qingdao’s Fushan, one week after 清明节 (Tomb Sweeping Festival).