An ancient scholar described honey as 'sweet dew . . . smooth as jade'

Honey is the classic symbol of natural sweetness, and China was one of the earliest civilizations to domestic bees to produce this household staple.

Honey is the classic symbol of natural sweetness, and China was one of the earliest civilizations to domestic bees to produce this household staple.

In Chinese, bees and wasps are called feng (蜂) in general, while honeybees are called mifeng (蜜蜂). In 2016, China was the world’s biggest exporter of honey.

In ancient times, honey was used to store perishable fruits in transport because its composition made long-term preservation possible. That concept was extended to the creation of preserved candied fruits.

Honey is widely used in food and beverages, beauty products and traditional Chinese medicine.

China was the world’s biggest exporter of honey in 2016.

Chinese history is rich with tales related, and we take a look at some of the highlights.

“A Chinese Bestiary” (“Shanhaijing”) is a book about fascinating mythical creatures in ancient China. There, the beehive appeared as a creature that looked like a human with two heads.

Honey was first documented in “The Classic of Herbal Medicine” (“Shennong Bencaojing”). Compiled from oral traditions in the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), it ranked honey as top-tier medicine that could cure many diseases without harming the body.

Chinese apiculture evolved from harvesting wild honey, though it’s unknown when the people first started to domesticate bees.

The first professional beekeeper on record was Jiang Qi in the early first century. Living deep in the mountains, Jiang not only operated beehives and pig farm with the help of 300 servants, but he also spread knowledge about beekeeping.

During the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280), honey was used to make refreshing beverages in summer and to preserve candied fruits.

The first professional Chinese beekeeper on record was Jiang Qi in the early first century.

Guo Pu, a scholar in Jin Dynasty (AD 265-420), described honey as “scattered like sweet dew, congealed like lard and fresh and smooth like jade.” He noted how well it complemented other medicines and wrote about the social structure of bees and their hives.

Honey and beekeeping were recorded quite extensively in the poetry of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when they became common businesses in China.

The first book on apiculture — “Record of a Bee Palace,” (“Feng Ya Xiao Ji”), written by Hao Yixing (1755-1823) — included 12 chapters on beekeeping and three more on bees and wasps. The book was not entirely scientific, studded as it was with references to superstitions like bees are afraid of old people.

Honey was also known as dongniang, which translates as “winter brew,” because harvesting and making honey was a tough task.

Su Zhe, brother of writer, poet, painter, calligrapher and pharmacologist Su Shi, once wrote that adding some honey into Tusu wine brewed in the traditional method was more delicious than the wine enjoyed by the immortals.

Honey in charcoal, an extravagant lifestyle

When talking about the fall of the Tang Dynasty, most people in China think of Emperor Xuanzong and his beloved consort Yang Guifei, for whom he would transport lychee from the south with the fastest horses to avoid spoilage of the fresh fruit.

But they were not the only ones engaged in conspicuous consumption at court. Yang Guozhong, the prime minister, perfected his own ways of living extravagantly in every season of the year.

In winter, charcoal was used to keep the rooms warm, but for Yang, a man fond of scents, the fuel’s odors were offensive. So the charcoal was broken into pieces and then mixed with honey. The mixture was molded into the shape of phoenix and emitted a honey fragrance while keeping the Yang family warm.

Dongpo honey wine

Dongpo pork is a classic Chinese braised dish named after Su Shi, a poet who was also a gastronome. Dongpo Jushi was Su’s pseudonym.

Su was dispatched to Huangzhou in Hubei Province in 1080, where he was given a honey wine recipe that used glutinous rice and honey to make a brew that is today known as Dongpo honey wine.

The steps to make the honey wine were recorded in Su’s collection of notes called “Dongpo Zhilin.” They said that once the wine urn was opened, the fragrance traveled across the city. Su composed “Song of Honey Wine” for the man who gave him the recipe.

Su was also a honey addict, eating vast volumes of both honey and ginger honey soup to refresh the mind and improve his health.

Honey wine has evolved in the 3,000 years since it first appeared at a banquet in the court of King You (781-771 BC). Inspired by yuanjiu, or “monkey wine,” it was a wine fermented from fruits.

Honey wine continued to evolve as a unique Chinese tradition. Li Shizhen (1518-93) listed it in the “Compendium of Materia Medica” (“Ben Cao Gang Mu”), quoting Tang Dynasty medical doctor Sun Simiao as saying that the wine was used to treat diseases like rubella. The work also contained a folk recipe for making honey wine.

The wine is also mentioned in “Food Lists of the Garden of Contentment,” written by Qing Dynasty gastronome Yuan Mei.

The honey bureau

In the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), a special honey bureau was established to make honey sculpted preserved fruits and vegetables for the royal family. The preserves, called diaohua mijian, originated in the Tang Dynasty. Diaohua mijian was made by sculpting the fruits and vegetables before soaking them in honey to make the preserves.

Bigger fruits and vegetables, like winter melon and papaya, were sculpted to depict ancient tales and animals, while smaller fruits like green plums were carved with patterns.

Diaohua Mijian


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