Photos ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn
When I was a child a jujube was an oblong candy (not unlike a coated jellybean) that you could buy in movie theaters. Jujubes are actually small fruits the size of walnuts, loved by Chinese all over the country and eaten in both fresh and dried form. In English they are sometimes mistakenly called Chinese dates. (Lat. Ziziphus jujuba, svenska: jujubär eller bröstbär). The jujube (of which there are many species) is a spiny shrub or small tree belonging to the buckthorn family (sv. brakvedsväxter) and can be found all over Asia and the Middle East, from Syria to China. It was originally cultivated in India as early as 9,000 BCE.
A fresh jujube tastes like a mild, sweetly aromatic apple without the tartness. The consistency is slightly squishy and mealy and not as firm as a crisp apple. Inside is a small, hard stone, not unlike an olive pit. A young jujube is a shiny green, which quickly turns to yellow with brown splotches. As the fruit dries it goes from brown to a dark red. The nutritional value is high with large quantities of vitamin C. Like so much food in China jujubes are considered medicinally beneficial. They are said to stimulate appetite and increase life-giving qi, they can also prevent coughs (därav det svenska namnet bröstbär), sore throats and alleviate stress!
In China food is not only looked upon as sustenance and medicine but often as a symbolic vehicle. Foods are served or eaten not only because they taste good or are healthy but because they sound like something else that has a positive meaning. Likewise some foods are avoided if they can be connected to something negative. There are many visual rebus constellations with jujubes, here are a few:
It is traditional for friends to place dried red jujubes (zao) and peanuts (huasheng) in the bridal bed in order to wish the newlyweds a speedy (i.e. early, zao) arrival (birth, sheng) of sons.
Jujubes (zao) together with chestnuts (lizi) symbolize the early (zao) "establishment of a family" (li). In certain dialects where zhi is pronounced zi this pairing together with a litchi (lizhi) conveys a wish that the recipient shall "establish a family" (li) with as many sons (zi) as early (zao) as possible.
At Chinese New Year's a sticky rice cake called a niangao is served to wish the guests greater (or higher, gao) prosperity and success year (nian) after year. If the cake is decorated with a red jujube (hongzao) the extra message is for this happy result to come as early (zao) as possible.
...and of course the deep and warm red of the dried jujube is the luckiest of colors.
You can find more entries like this in my new book "Chinese Symbols" ICA, 2008.