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    The Lost Art of Chrysanthemum Cultivation

    Yu Jiangang’s hometown used to be a “sea of flowers.” What was lost when the sea dried up?

    For such a dreamlike flower, chrysanthemums can be a nightmare to grow. Despite its idyllic reputation among China’s literati, the actual work of cultivating and picking chrysanthemum is backbreaking: A single mu of chrysanthemum flowers (roughly 667 square meters) requires between four and five laborers to harvest, not to mention the complicated work involved in processing the flowers into tea.

    Perhaps that explains why traditional tea-growing areas along China’s developed coast began abandoning the the crop in the 1990s and 2000s. My hometown, Tongxiang, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, has been a center of hangbaiju, or “whited-colored chrysanthemum,” cultivation for nearly four centuries. Indeed, according to China’s official agricultural products registry, true hangbaiju is defined by its terroir: It can only be produced in a small part of Tongxiang.

    But by the time my wife and I moved back in late 2011, most residents of Tongxiang’s 10 towns had gotten out of the tea growing business. The “sea of a hundred flowers” we’d learned about growing up had vanished, replaced by subdivisions, asphalt roads, and a handful of industrial farms.

    Among consumers of chrysanthemum tea, these changes have gone largely unnoticed. White chrysanthemum tea remains readily available in stores and online, in part because tea producers have exploited loopholes in the product regulation system. Just as some merchants soak non-local crabs in Yangcheng Lake to package them as authentic hairy crabs, white chrysanthemum gets imported into Tongxiang, processed, and resold as Tongxiang tea.

    But the loss of Tongxiang’s white chrysanthemum plantations isn’t just about tea. The flower was part of a diversified and delicate farming equilibrium: Farmers in the surrounding Hangjiahu Plain cultivated it alongside silkworm, local sheep breeds, mustard greens, rice, pond fish, and other biota. Sheep manure and silkworm droppings fertilized the chrysanthemum, while chrysanthemum leaves protected and nourished the soil. In addition to maximizing land use and productivity, these practices preserved the earth and reduced farmers’ dependence on external fertilizers.

    The collapse of this system had a devastating on the local environment. In “The Natural History of Tayubang,” writer and Tongxiang native Zou Hanming documents the decline of traditional crops, farming, and folklore in his home village of Tayubang, culminating in the village’s demolition in late 2009.

    My own village has undergone a similar decline. Residents are being moved into subdivisions one by one, their connection to the land severed by the road expansions that now fragment the village. As traditional village life fades into memory, the sustainable agricultural system it birthed has fallen apart.

    In an effort to halt this process, in 2017 I attempted to reintroduce white chrysanthemum production to the area. I pinned my hopes on Weiqiang, a farmer and former classmate of mine from the next village over. Between us, we cultivated 1.5 mu of land, only to watch as Typhoon Mangkhut washed Weiqiang’s harvest away. My own plot just barely weathered the storm, but produced a mere 33 pounds of chrysanthemum.

    Extreme weather has plagued us ever since. In 2020, a prolonged rainy season, high temperatures, typhoons, and droughts again wiped out Weiqiang’s chrysanthemum crop.

    My own field has fared slightly better, partly due to the terrain and partly because of our use of a traditional crop-livestock system. We grew white chrysanthemums alongside rice, silkworm, and mulberries, all on land grazed by sheep.

    We are not the only ones trying to revive Tongxiang’s white chrysanthemum legacy. Last year, a large-scale chrysanthemum farm was set up in west Tongxiang, driven by a transfer of rural land and investments from major enterprises.

    Such industrial-scale agriculture can meet rising consumer demand for tea, but agriculture has never been about serving urban shoppers. It is a practice: a part of rural culture and a source of local identity. When Tongxiang’s sericulture system was included in a national list of “important agricultural heritage systems,” the emphasis was not on its crops, but on the connections behind them. The system was a stand-in for a way of cultivation and life that, passed down for centuries, remains a marvel to modern agricultural researchers.

    Disrupting this system has consequences. Last July, I unexpectedly discovered toads — an environmentally sensitive creature that hadn’t been sighted locally for more than a decade — in my small chrysanthemum garden. They were feeding on the millipedes that now swarmed the field, nibbling on my flower seedlings.

    It turns out that an outbreak of millipedes, originally a frustration, had reintroduced toads to Tongxiang. I’m under no illusions that my little farm will change the fortunes of the area. As of this April this year, my white chrysanthemum plantation still hadn’t expanded beyond 1 mu, and no other small farmer in the village has followed me in bringing back the flowers. But I’ll take my victories where I can.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image: A farmer tends to a field of chrysanthemum in Tongxiang, Zhejiang province. Courtesy of Yu Jiangang)