Osaka Airport, 22 October 2017
My wife and I have been in Kyoto these last three weeks. I was here to once again give my course on sustainable industrial development at the university. But I don’t want to discuss that, I want to talk about a scent wafting on the breeze.
As we walked around the quiet neighborhood where we had taken an AirBnB, I found my nose suddenly being assailed by a very sweet smelling scent. The first few times it happened, I couldn’t locate an obvious source around me and I began to fear that I was suffering from olfactory hallucinations, that a tumor was growing in my brain and was beginning to press against whichever bit it is that controls one’s sense of smell. What made me particularly susceptible to this theory was that the scent was distinctly similar to the one most toilet cleaning products emit; you know, the scent which wafts off that bright blue or pink stuff you squeeze into the toilet bowl, leaving your toilet smelling like heaven.
Maybe the tumor was triggering olfactory memories of my toilet … Luckily for my growing levels of paranoia, the third or fourth time it happened I located the source. It was an unprepossessing tree on the corner of the road
covered in small orange flowers.
Relieved that the scent was not a figment of a diseased brain, I set to work trying to figure out what plant it was. A google search quickly revealed its Japanese name to be kinmokusei, and that in the month of October it filled the air with its sweet scent. A further search revealed that its official name is osmanthus fragrans, with its English names being sweet olive, tea olive, or fragrant olive (the reference to olive apparently having to do with a similarity in leaf shape to the olive tree).
According to its Wikipedia entry, the several varieties of osmanthus are “native to Asia, from the Himalayas through southern China to Taiwan and southern Japan and southeast Asia as far south as Cambodia and Thailand”. The mention of China rang a bell somewhere in my (non-diseased) brain, something I had read once, while living in China, about osmanthus jam. Sure enough, the Wikipedia article revealed that the Chinese make an osmanthus-scented jam, but also osmanthus-scented tea, dumplings, cakes, soups, wine, and liquor. My wife and I never tasted any of these delicacies when we lived in China, but that was Beijing, in northern China, outside the osmanthus’s range.
The China connection and the nostalgia it evoked in me made me dig a little more. I discovered that the plant’s relationship with China is long; the Chinese have been cultivating it for some two and a half thousand years – its sweet scent saw to that. As might be expected, the Chinese poets weaved it into their work. Here is Wang Wei, an 8th Century Tang Dynasty poet:
I’m quiet, osmanthus flowers fall,
Tranquil is this spring night, empty the hill,
The rising moon startles mountain birds,
Which call awhile in the spring stream.
Or here we have the 12th Century Song Dynasty female poet, Li Qingzhao:
I recover from illness,
My temples have turned grey.
I lie down to rest and watch the waning moon
Climb up my screen.
Tender lips meet sweet mace, boiled in water,
Aromatic as tea.
Books and poems are so dear to me
While I sit idle against a pillow.
The outside scene freshens when rain falls.
All day long, facing me lovingly
Is the sweet osmanthus.
Things have come to a pretty pass when a flower’s scent, which made the Chinese poets sing, only makes me think of toilet fresheners! What a dumbing down we are witnessing …
Luckily for me, the Chinese themselves have made a connection between the flower’s sweet scent and more malodorous things. Osmanthus flowers bloom more or less in the eighth lunar month, which is when the Imperial civil service examinations were originally held.
This temporal connection gave rise to a phrase in late Imperial China which was used to euphemistically indicate that a candidate had successfully passed the exam: “pluck osmanthus in the Toad Palace”. Passing the exams would now open up to the successful candidate positions in the administration where myriad possibilities would exist for him to conclude sweet deals to his advantage during the rest of his no doubt illustrious career. Imperial examinations have vanished, only to have their place taken by the gaokao, the university entrance exams.
This is the first critical step to defining how successful a career you can have in China and how much of a life of preferment and sweet deals you will enjoy. “Plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, the more things change and the more they stay the same, as the French writer Jean-Baptiste Karr once observed.
While I have been reading up on all this, Typhoon Lan has been brewing in the Pacific to the east of the Philippines. Now it is moving ponderously northward towards Japan. The rain that’s been falling as a prelude to its arrival has stripped the Osmanthus bushes of their flowers.
Their scent is finished for this year. It’s time for us to fly home, hopefully before Typhoon Lan makes a landfall and closes the airport.
Toilet cleaner: https://wifinowevents.com/news-and-blog/22000-agree-clean-toilets-wi-fi/
osmanthus fragrans: my pictures
Chinese Imperial exams: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=AXGQt7Ts1wo
Gaokao exam: http://blog.tutorming.com/expats/what-is-gaokao-chinese-college-entrance-exam
Fallen osmanthus flowers: my picture