Du Fu’s “Cloves”

I’ve talked about cloves fairly often on this blog. Cloves are the dried blossoms of the tree Syzygium aromaticum, which now grows almost throughout the tropics but which in the Middle Ages could be found on only five small islands in eastern Indonesia — namely Ternate, Tidore, Bacan, Makian, and Moti, all in the vicinity of Halmahera, a large-ish island a few hundred kilometres west of New Guinea. Cloves are among the earliest Indonesian commodities to appear in the historical record; there’s a reference to caryophyllon in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (XII), and though that is sometimes interpreted as something other than cloves (usually cubebs — which also came from Indonesia), the word is ancestral to later terms which unambiguously refer to cloves (girofle, garofano, etc.). Cloves were certainly known in western Afro-Eurasia, including the Middle East and Europe, by the middle of the first millennium CE.

They also appear in China around the same time. The Chinese word for ‘clove’ is 丁香 (or 丁子香 — pinyin: dīng(zi)xiāng). Interpreted literally it means ‘nail aromatic’; you may note that 丁 looks a bit like (and is in origin) a picture of a nail (although the derived form 釘 is now more commonly used to refer to metal nails). Chinese is not unique in comparing cloves to nails; the simile is fairly common in languages across Afro-Eurasia, including Czech, Danish, German, Hungarian, Italian, Russian, and even English. (‘Clove’ is ultimately from Latin clavus ‘nail’.) We’ve come across this Chinese word before on the blog, in any case — in a twelfth-century Chinese description of betel quids in Guangxi by the high-ranking official Fan Chengda (范成大) — and now we’re going to look at it again in a poem from several centuries earlier.

The poem in question is by Du Fu (杜甫 Dù Fǔ, 712–770), long considered one of China’s greatest poets. Du Fu flourished around the midpoint of the Tang dynasty (618–907) and lived through the An Lushan Rebellion, an extremely disruptive uprising against the Tang Emperor Xuanzong in 755–763, after which central authority was lastingly weakened. Du Fu’s own life was profoundly affected by this event. I have taken the text of the poem below from Stephen Owen’s 2015 edition and translation of Du Fu’s poems for the Library of Chinese Humanities (p.86–87), which you can find free in PDF form here; Owen’s introduction explains Du Fu’s life and times much more ably than I can here, so give that a read if you want to know more about the poet himself. (1)

I am interested in this poem, as I say, because it features the word 丁香, which often means ‘cloves’. It is even to be found in the title. Owen translates this word as ‘cloves’, as you will see. But something’s not right here:





Five Songs by the River: Cloves

The clove tree’s body is pliant and weak,
intertwining wildly, its branches still droop.
Fine leaves bear a light down,
sparse flowers spread white sensuousness. 4
I plant it deep behind my small study,
hoping to be near the recluse to possess it.
As for falling eventually among orchid and musk;
cease to harbor concerns that you will be powdered. 8

Could Du Fu have seen a clove tree in the flesh? Is it plausible that the poet could have planted a clove tree behind his study? Given that all the clove trees in the world grew on only five small islands in eastern Indonesia in Du Fu’s day, it does seem rather unlikely — unless, of course, our understanding of the history of the clove trade is entirely wrong and the trees really could be found in China in the eighth century (Figure 1).

Fig. 1 — More than 4,000 kilometres separate the location of Du Fu’s cottage in Chengdu from the clove-producing islands around Halmahera in eastern Indonesia. I’m not sure if Du Fu lived in Chengdu at the time of the writing of the poem above, but perhaps not. The historical context of Du Fu’s poems isn’t always clear (though it may be in this case — I’m not a specialist in these things and there are always competing theories…).

As Daanisy Pontoh (Daanisy) pointed out on Twitter, however, after I had shared the poem, the plant referred to here is not a clove tree but one or other species of lilac (Syringa spp.), also known in Chinese as 丁香 or 丁香花 (‘nail aromatic flower’). There may be a pun on the ‘clove’/‘lilac’ meanings in lines 7 and 8, with references to musk (麝) and ‘powder(ing)’ (粉) — more clove-y associations than lilac-y ones — but the fundamental sense of the poem is more lilac than clove. The description of the plant fits better with a lilac, and there is of course the sheer unlikeliness of a clove tree being grown in China in this period. The poem is one of a series, 江頭五詠 ‘Five Songs by the River’, all of whose other titles refer to things that could be found living in China at the time (梔子 ‘gardenia’, 鸂鶒 ‘mandarin duck’, and so on).

Finally, Edward Schafer notes in The Golden Peaches of Samarkand (1963, chapter X), a classic study of exotic goods in Tang-era China, that

‘“[n]ail aromatic” was the name originally given to the flowers of several native Chinese lilacs because of the form of their little blossoms, and in [Tang] poetry it seems always to denote “lilac fragrance,” not the imported spice[emphasis added].

Fig. 2 — There is certainly a resemblance between dried whole cloves (L) and the buds of some lilacs (R).

Far be it from me to criticise a translation by a scholar of Owen’s stature — but it seems to me that ‘clove’ is the wrong interpretation here.

Clove confusions are not in any event restricted to China. As I noted a while ago on this blog, in western Afro-Eurasia it is now common for ‘clove’ words to also refer to carnations or gilliflowers (Dianthus caryophyllus) — totally unrelated plants whose flowers’ scent is somewhat similar to that of cloves. In the carnation case the ‘clove’ meaning is certainly prior, and I’m not aware of any unambiguous pre-sixteenth-century uses of ‘clove’ words in reference to carnations in any European or Middle Eastern texts. In the Chinese lilac case neither is necessarily so. ‘Nail aromatic’ (丁香) appears to have applied equally to cloves and lilacs, with context marking the distinction more than anything else.

Cloves were without question known and consumed in China in the eighth century, and I’m always on the look-out for interesting references to commodities from the Indo-Malaysian archipelago in literature from the rest of greater Afro-Eurasia in the Middle Ages. Perhaps there are some unequivocal references to cloves (or nutmeg, or other Indonesian goods) in Tang poetry — if you are aware of any, do let me know.


(1) I found this bit of Owen’s introduction (p.lx) too revealing of Du Fu’s personality and approach to poetry not to include here:

‘…there is more everyday “business” than has survived in other contemporary poetry collections; and we do not know if Du Fu simply preserved verses that others discarded or if he had an expanded sense of poetry in the everyday. No one else, setting up a household, has poems begging for fruit trees and crockery. No one else writes irritated poems when promised grain does not arrive on time or the usual vegetable delivery is substandard. No one else celebrates a bamboo piping system that brings water from a mountain spring into his kitchen or the construction of a chicken coop. Chinese critics wax ecstatic about Du Fu’s “realism,” but they do not mention these poems that are just too realistic, the persuasively “realistic” voice of a very cranky old man making his complaint about bad vegetables into poetry.’

Tip of the hat to Tom Mazanec (@tommazanec) for alerting me to the existence of the Library of Chinese Humanities, an open-access Loeb-alike series of Chinese classics (which I’ve now spent several hours poring over).

A. J. West — Leiden, 2021


Owen, Stephen. 2015. The poetry of Du Fu. Volume 3. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter, Inc.

Schafer, Edward H. 1963. The golden peaches of Samarkand. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.



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Medieval Indonesia

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.