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Trees that a nation has long pined for 3/27/2008

Visitors to Mount Huangshan of East China's Anhui province are often led to the Yingkesong (Greeting Guest Pine), which looks like a hospitable host extending an arm to greet guests. In 1959, local artist Zhu Yanqing made a portrait of this pine with wrought iron. It has impressed many honored guests from around the world as a symbol of the Chinese people's hospitality.

For Chinese, pine is not just a tree. It has been the subject of admiration in innumerable poems, paintings, artifacts and gardens.

Song Dynasty (960-1279) scholar Hu Zhonggong once wrote that the pine's branches wave like an old man's beard in the wind and the trunk seems like a dragon with upturned scales. The tree absorbs moisture and lets out a fragrance similar to orchards.

The pine is often associated with bamboo and the Chinese mei flower as "Three Friends in the Annual Cold" (suihan sanyou) as they display strong vitality in heavy snow. This term stems from Su Shi (1037-1101), another Song Dynasty scholar who was wrongly charged and sent into exile in today's Huanggang of Central China's Hubei province.

Besides planting rice and wheat to sustain his family, the scholar also had pine, cypress, bamboo and mei in his garden. On the walls, he painted snowflakes. When a friend asked if he felt cold and lonely as real snow obstructed visitors, Su laughed: "The wind and stream are two musical ensembles; the pine, bamboo and mei are three of my good friends."

Bai Juyi (AD 772-846), a Tang Dynasty poet, wrote in a poem that he bought an old house with ten pines in the courtyard. All the neighbors were surprised, but he was happy: "The family of 20 / has moved for the pines. / What's the gain from the move? / To seek a clue of solving our earthly troubles. / With pines as good friends / what's the need of befriending more talents?"

Perhaps the best-known poem about pine was written by Marshall Chen Yi, who served as China's first foreign minister in the 1950s. On a snowy night in 1960, he wrote: "Heavy snow weighs down on the green pine. / The green pine stands forceful and straight. / To find out how noble and unsullied the pine is, / wait till the snow melts."

As natural disasters hit China in the early 1960s, the country was going through a very hard period. The situation was aggravated when the former Soviet Union broke rapport with China. But the Chinese people relied on themselves to overcome these difficulties. Chen Yi's short poem aptly catches this spirit.

As for the Greeting Guest Pine on Mount Huangshan, it was first recorded in 1635 but the original tree had withered in 1832. The present pine, planted in 1859, enjoys utmost care including a special staff who monitor the humidity, wind, temperature and other elements 24 hours a day. Bearing in mind the importance of pine for the nation, such care is absolutely necessary.

Yingkesong (Greeting Guest Pine) on Mount Huangshan of East China's Anhui province is one of the country's best-known trees.

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