Fujian’s ‘Ode to the Sweet Potato’

In a period of great climactic [sic] uncertainty, plagued with floods and famines, the Fujianese merchant Chen Zhenlong was greatly impressed by the high-yield, fast-growing sweet potatoes he saw cultivated in the Philippines. He bought some of the exotic American plants and brought them home, growing them experimentally on a plot of private land. When Fujian was struck by a crippling famine in 1594, the canny Chen approached the governor with his new discovery, and persuaded him to introduce it that season. The venture was rewarded with a crop that saved the lives of thousands of Fujianese. The governor gained the nickname ‘Golden Potato’, and the incident led to the composition of He Qiaoyuan’s ‘Ode to the Sweet Potato’, part of which went:

Sweet potato, found in Luzon,
Grows all over, trouble-free
Foreign devils love to eat it
Propagates so easily.

We just made a single cutting
Boxed it up and brought it home
Ten years later, Fujian’s saviour.
If it dies, just make a clone.

Take your cutting, then re-plant it
Wait a week and see it grow
This is how we cultivate it
In our homeland, reap and sow.

SOURCE: Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, by Jonathan Clements (Sutton, 2005), p. 15


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