Hangzhou is the political, economic and cultural captial of Zhejiang province in south-eastern China. Like its neighbour Suzhou, Hangzhou has long been revered for its beauty. An old proverb says:
There is heaven above.
There are Suzhou and Hangzhou below.
When Marco Polo visited Hangzhou in the late thirteenth century, he went as far as to describe Hangzhou as ‘the city of heaven’, and declared it to be ‘the most beautful city in the world’. Indeed, today Hangzhou presents itself as ‘Heaven on Earth’, and so it is hardly surprising that my immediate sensation on arrival was one of wellbeing. Our group from Cambridge was staying at the beautiful New Hotel by the side of West Lake. As well as views of the city’s skyscrapers to the east, there were enticing glimpses of cloud-shrouded mountains in other directions. I was anticipating a visit to Tea Mountain, and was wondering how it might differ from a tea plantation in Fuzhou (Jiangxi province), which I visited in 2018. On that occasion we had been driven through a part of its 240 square kilometres in a twelve-seater open bus, stopping to take pictures across a flat green expanse of tea bushes, stretching to the horizon in every direction.
In Hangzhou, by contrast, tea is cultivated on picturesque mountain terraces. I was hoping to see pickers on Tea Mountain, and to witness for myself the traditional scenes of cone-shaped hats dotted among the bushes like little roofs or parasols. One of my fellow travellers, artist David Paskett, was looking forward to sketching such a scene and, as we climbed the dusty and rocky path between the rows of tea bushes, the pale-green buds were plump and seemed ready to burst open. But we were too early to see the flowers or inhale their sweet scent, and the pickers would not arrive for several more weeks. My attention, however, was drawn to a squarish, yellow-brown box. It was a bee-box. The bees inside would soon be released to pollinate the flowers, pollination being necessary for the tea plants to produce new seeds.
As a child, the first thing I learnt about bees was negative. It was my mother’s story. When she was a small girl in Paris, her mother would sometimes send her to stay with her grandmother in the Pyrenees, a mountainous region in the south of France. One day the child wandered off into a nearby copse and came upon an irresistible-looking ‘doll’s house’. This was before the discovery of anti-histamine, and I have always been haunted by the image of a six year-old lying unconscious on the pine-scented ground next to that bee hive.
Over the years, however, my wariness of bees has greatly diminished. I was momentarily transported back to the scrubby garden of my bedsit in Gravesend, England, which years later I recalled in a prose poem: a buff-tailed bumble bee shelters from an equinoctial downpour, the tiny baskets on her hind legs brimming with yellow pollen. Now, here in Hangzhou, I was pleased to see that simple wooden box. It looked utilitarian, like the kind of packing-box which a courrier might deliver to your door. I gazed across these mountain terraces, envisaging thousands of yellow bees working amongst the glossy green leaves and delicate white flowers, industriously filling the tiny pollen baskets on their hind legs.
Man’s recognition of the curative benefits of honey goes back to antiquity, and I discovered this for myself during a period of one-and-a-half years when doctors couldn’t find the cause of a severe allergy manifesting itself in swellings, red rashes and sores. When my doctor said it would ‘be a wild goose chase to find the floral source’, I did my own research and, in a poem titled ‘Apitherapy’, quoted Hippocrates (c.460 to c.370 BCE): Honey cleans sores and ulcers of the lips, heals carbuncles and running sores. And, indeed, honey did have a soothing effect before doctors were able to treat my allergy.
Humans have kept bees in colonies for millennia, and some of the oldest examples of art depicting honey-hunting are to be found in Mesolithic rock paintings in Spain, which have been dated to 8000 to 6000 BCE. It is little wonder, given the health benefits of honey, that bees feature so prominently in world mythology, and in art, literature and film, and in the affections of humans generally. In Western culture, the earliest literary accounts about bees come from the poems of Homer, originally as oral epics and later in written form. The biologist Constantine W. Lau suggests that some of the earliest records of bees may be found on oracle bones dating to the Shang period (1600-1046 BCE), the earliest ruling dynasty of China to be documented in recorded history.
One of the earliest poems recorded in ancient China was during the Song dynastry (before 200 BCE). It is a warning poem by the King of Zhou. If a bee entered your home in ancient China, it would bring good luck, but only on condition that it was permitted to fly out again. Bees were also regarded with fear because of their sting, and were called Feng, a term which included other insects such as ants and wasps. The earliest recorded bee was found in neighbouring Myanmar. The bee was found with pollen encased in amber and has been dated as 100 million years old. In those early periods, bees were more like wasps, eating other insects rather than nectar and pollen.
Honey bees, called Mifeng, were not classified separately until the second century BCE, and the earliest existing poem about them, ‘Mifeng fu’ (‘Rhapsody on Honeybees’), is by Guo Pu in the fourth century. In this poem, Guo elevates the bee among the flying insects, considering them to be on equal terms with birds. The longest single poetic work on Fengwas by Liu Shen (1269-1351), a native of Jiangxi province, the location of my first visit to a tea plantation. Liu’s poem, also called ‘Feng fu’, likens bee colonies to imperial courts and asserts that the bees’ duty is to their monarch. These values are reflected in the Confucian concept of ‘household’. It is interesting to note that for centuries the Chinese believed that the ruler of the bee hive was not the queen bee, but the king bee.
There is the old custom of ‘telling the bees’ about events such as births and deaths, which the bees would pass on to the gods. In ancient lore, bees were messengers from the gods. In ancient Greece they represented the soul. I recalled the modernist Czech writer, Rilke (1875-1926), using the image of the bee to clarify his ideas and insights concerning modern man’s relationship with the natural world, as expressed in his great poetic work Duino Elegies. He likened the bees’ pollen-gathering to our plundering of the visible (‘honey’) in order to gain access to life beyond the present (‘the great golden hive of the invisible’).
Richard Schiffman, environmentalist and poet, writes that recent research indicates that ‘bees might actually have unique personalities that allow them to solve problems, make choices, and react in ways that look suspiciously like human emotions’. We should no longer regard bees as humble creatures buzzing around mindlessly. They may have some mathematical capacity, and can distinguish between different patterns in nature.
Nowadays, China is one of the most significant providers of bee pollination services globally. In addition to having unparalleled bee diversity, China has more than eight million managed bee colonies, and it is the world’s major honey producer. Most beekeepers are from the South of China, and Zhejiang province is particularly important for its bee-keeping industry. Most of us are familiar with the commerical products ― beeswax, honey and royal jelly ― and with their associated health-giving qualities.
Honey is indeed the nectar of the gods, and I know that honey from Hangzhou is particularly delightful to the taste buds. As Marco Polo might have said: ‘divine!’
How apt it is that this upper pictogram could be an insect
the oracle bone drawing not tree but a bee’s exoskeleton
the first two upwardly curving strokes not branches
but forelegs| the second not twigs but middle legs
the downward lines not roots but two hind limbs
How fitting that the lower images of a river and a boat
symbolise people pulling together to overcome a crisis
of even global proportions| Here on the steep tea terraces
I won’t tell the latest sickness or bereavement or even
the recent family birth| I want to imitate the bees
to be an envoy of the visible to where there is neither a here
nor a beyond but the great unity| Soon they will fly out
from the workers’ box| brush yellow dust into tiny baskets
as they hum in the shrubs| pollinating sweet-scented flowers
I touch a pale tea bud| plump as a bumble bee’s abdomen
thinking about the side of life that is turned away from us
Note: Books and internet articles I have drawn upon for this essay include the following:
Hamilton, Lucy, Stalker (Shearsman Books, 2012)
Hamilton, Lucy, Of Heads & Hearts (Shearsman Books, 2018)
heathenchinese.wordpress.com (2014, 2015)
Huang, Alfred, The Complete I Ching, (Inner Traditions, Vermont, 1998, 2010)
Rilke, Rainer Maria, Duino Elegies trans Stephen Cohn Pref. Peter Porter (Carcanet, 1989)
Rilke, Rainer Maria, Duino Elegies trans. Stephen Cohn, Pref. Peter Porter (Carcanet,1989)
Routledge Encyclopedia of Tranditional Chinese Culture, Ch 3, David Patteron, Bees in China
Schiffman, Richard, New Scientist, 9 June 2018
Calligraphy by Sophie Song
Lucy Hamilton 6th January 2022