An apple a day keeps the distance away

German dark romantic painter Max Ernst: Spanking of the Christ Child in front of three witnesses

After I got up this morning, I discovered that my Chinese language digital channels are flooded with apples. Yes, apples. The fruit that hit young Isaac Newton on his head. Having left China decades ago, I must admit the things happening currently in my wonderful birth country are quite often  beyond my imagination.

Next I sent a puzzled face emoji to one of my friends.

Me: “Are the shops running out of (Steve) Jobs? People are sending me real apple pictures.”

Friend: “Giving apples on Christmas Eve is a big tradition here. The price of apple has skyrocketed in the  past weeks!”

Me: “What?!!”

Friend: “Are we clever or not, Sherlock? Remember Sars back in 2002?”   

Suddenly Issac’s apple hit me on my head with a boink-reka.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) plagued the entire China from November 2002 to May 2004. The fatal virus infected 8,098 cases and killed 774 people around the world. During the epidemic  outbreak, iodized salt was completely sold out on mainland China. The magic doctor is: homophone.

Sars is called feidian in Chinese. dian can mean many many very  different things. Being psycholinguistics and natural poets, the Chinese have a tendency to see a “hare” in your “hair” and feel the “muscles” (or mussels) in the (k)night. The Chinese language itself lends untold opportunities to play this ancient word game. As a matter of fact, homophone is also the way  Chinese netizens circumvent censorship.   

Christmas Eve translates to ping’an ye, which literally means “Peaceful Night” or “Silent Night” (the same as the name of the song in Chinese). Apple is pingguo.

During the festive season Chinese lunar New Year, whole fish is served for every family banquet across the country. “Having fish”, you yu is homophonic to “having extra/surplus” at the end of the year. Another popular New Year’s Festival dish is cabbage, bai cai, because it sounds like “much wealth”/“hundred wealth”.

The Chinese, however, made themselves believe that the people in the West give each other apples on Christmas Eve and so giving each other an apple has become a huge Chinese tradition ever since 2014 (?). The funniest part: most Chinese people don’t even know they invented it.  

On a side note. Sinaasappel means orange in Dutch. Literally, it’s a “China’s apple”.

And oh, the Max Ernst painting is actually the apple of my eye. Do you like it too? Let me know what you think.

Julie O. is an Europe-based Chinese writer, poet, artist. I’m currently working on The Pillow Book, a collection of poems and short prose. & The Book of D., a full-length novel set in ancient China. Wanna be part of my creative journey? Subscribe to my blog. Thank you  💗