Aaron Zhang
Aaron Zhang
Lover of history and Torah.

“Big Orange” and Tel Aviv’s Chinese genes

During the time of Corona, the origin of the virus has become a really sensitive and controversial issue. It is a scientific question we have to ask and research so as to prevent the next global pandemic. However, while most of us like to eat oranges or drink orange juice, we almost never ask about the origin of oranges. Well, this time, unmistakably sure, it is from China.

Floating Orange Tree by Ran Morin and “Orange Bike”, photo by Aaron Zhang in 2018

Many people may have already heard of the nickname of Tel Aviv – “Big Orange”. We know New York City gained its nickname “Big Apple” probably because the city was so attractive, good for food and pleasing to the eyes for those who came with an American Dream. Everybody wanted to take a bite from it. Different from the American New York, the “New York” of Israel got its nickname “Big Orange” exactly because of the oranges produced in its vicinity– Jaffa oranges.

We know Tel Aviv has Egyptian genes, because the city lies right next to the international trade road “Via Maris” and for thousands of years the Egyptian material and cultural elements inevitably left a deep mark on the region. Beside this, when we stretch the time from known history to geologic time scale, we could also observe something interesting. For thousands of years (or millions of years as some would say) the sand of Nile River, the driving force of the Egyptian civilization, has been steadily transported to the Israeli coastal region and become sand beaches and coastal plain.

It is interesting to see that the Hebrew words “sand” and “secular” are the same. Both could be spelt “חול” and pronounced “chol”. When discussing the topic, my friend Jesse even recommended a nice song – “Ben kodesh lechol” (“Between holy and profane”) by Amir Dadon. In latter periods of the history, the sandy coastal area became a gateway to Jerusalem, thus enabled Jews from all over the world to make “Aliya” (“ascension”).

In recent decades, it appears that even moving from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv-Yafo has become a sort of a “yeridah” (“descent”) in both physical and spiritual sense, for religious people. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have become two cities “ben kodesh lechol”, between holy and secular, between the hard limestones of history and holiness and the soft and profane Egyptian sands and mixed kurkar stones.

Now let us move on to the Chinese “genes” of the oranges associated with Tel Aviv. It is not clear when exactly the Portuguese brought the oranges from China to the Mediterranean. Probably around 500 years ago at the time when the Portuguese started to settle in the Chinese territory of Macau. When the first Portuguese landed in today’s Macau they actually arrived at a temple, they asked the locals where they were, the friendly locals answered them “Macau” (“Mazu Temple” in the local language). Very soon they found out the local “lucky fruit” – oranges and brought it to other corners of the world.

This calls to mind a legend related to a famous Israeli fruit – the “Medjool” (in Arabic “unknown”) date, which is branded as “King of Dates” and loved in China. Similar to what happened to the Portuguese, the introduction of the unique date from Morocco to the land of Israel is also mixed with laughable misunderstanding between the visiting agronomists and the locals, as the Arabic name of the date indicates.

There’s no doubt that the palm date has been an important energy food for the merchants on the ancient land silk road for thousands of years, it is still a question what role the orange has played in the ancient international trade. “One belt one road”, which is inspired by the ancient trade routes, is one of the most ambitious initiatives of the Chinese government in the last few decades. I am wondering, why not use “one orange and one date” as the official fruit dish to be served on international “belt and road” conferences?

The Portuguese might find it difficult to understand the passion the local Chinese have for oranges and everything associated with its name, color and taste etc. The name for orange in many Chinese dialects sounds like “luck” and some even decided to change the Chinese character for orange from “橘” (ju) to “桔” (ju) and they succeeded. As a result, in today’s China especially in the South, orange has become a lucky fruit in Chinese both in oral and written form (“桔”) while in the North many still write in the old way (“橘”). Furthermore, the yellow-orange color is just perfect for all festive occasions.

Jews probably love dates as much as Chinese love oranges. The date tree can be compared to the Jewish people. Like the date tree is useful in all its different parts from top to down: dates for eating, branches for hallel, fronds for shade, fibers for ropes etc. Similarly, each and everyone among the people of Israel is important. Israel of today is a pluralist Jewish democracy. No wonder the date tree is minted on the Israeli ten shekel coin.

When it comes to orange, I have a bold speculation: in contrast to the already accepted use of “banana” as a metaphor for ABC (“American Born Chinese”) who despite the yellow skin color has a white inner side, the popular fruit orange could have great potential to become a metaphor for a “real” Chinese – same color in and outside. In the heat of the South, it tastes sweet; however in the cold of the North it could be bitter.

In English there’s a saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Likewise, around 200 years ago, long before vitamin C was discovered, the world finally realized “an orange a day keeps scurvy away”. The consensus that oranges (as well as lemons) are a remedy for this sailor disease might have accelerated its popularity in the world. Probably it was around the same time the Chinese orange trees started to spread around Jaffa and later became the world famous “Jaffa orange”. In our modern society it took just a few months for a virus to spread to the whole world and produce a few noticeable mutations.

In a much less globalized period it took a few hundred years for the Chinese orange to travel to different parts of the world and produce a good mutated hybrid type to be enjoyed by all of us. In this sense, without Jaffa oranges, there might not be the city of Tel Aviv as we know today. Therefore, the nickname “Big Orange” indeed traces back to the very beginning of the city.

Jaffa is a place with a long history dating back to the Bronze Age, a time characterized by the many hilly “tels” in this land. Thanks to Jaffa and its ancient Tel, the name “Tel Aviv” really has its supposed meaning. 2600 years ago when Prophet Ezekiel prophesied at “Tel Aviv” near the Kebar River in Babylon, he probably would not expect the name of a small place he mentioned would be used to translate the title of a masterpiece utopian novel called “Altneuland “published by Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, or a political “prophet”, who prophesied the reestablishment of a Jewish state.

On September 3, 1897, Theodor Herzl famously concluded the First Zionist Congress in Switzerland by stating in his diary, “At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in 50 years, everyone will perceive it.” We know exactly 50 years later there was the UN partition plan and immediately after that the creation of the State of Israel. “Altneuland” (“The Old New Land”) was translated into “Tel Aviv”(“spring of ancient mound”) in Hebrew and Tel Aviv indeed became the “Altneuland” – a land as old and ancient as the Biblical Tels after the desolation of thousands of years finally starts to renew herself and prosper again – like the blooming Mediterranean flowers in the spring. And the oranges played a big role in the revival of the “Altneuland”.

With the invention of steamships and much faster transportation of the oranges in the 19th century, the Europeans soon fell in love with the sweet fruit from Jaffa. For the most part of the last two centuries, Jaffa orange has been the most important exports of the Land of Israel, until it was surpassed by cut diamonds and high tech exports in recent decades.

For many years in the last two centuries, the fruit has brought a steady income source to the local Arabs, Jews and German Templers and encouraged them to settle down in the largely desolated coastal area. It is also noticeable that this fruit gave Rothschild family, Zionists and other Jewish immigrants great inspiration to create the economic foundation to build a national home for the Jewish people in the land of Israel.

Maybe that is the reason a special orange tree is to be found mong the zodiac streets of the Old Jaffa – an interesting work of Ran Morin known as the Floating Orange Tree. It is a small orange tree that is elevated off of the ground by a large earthenware jug hung by metal chains from the walls of houses nearby.

It is said that Morin sought to emphasize the increasing world of separation between man and nature, as “creatures that grow in containers.” When I saw this work it reminded me of the Jewish history – the Jewish people wandering in diaspora for nearly two thousand years and seperated from the “adamah” – the land of Israel. I thought of the many cool Tel Avivians who have largely turned away from the many ancient traditions of their ancestors.

The orange tree in the air is a product of modernity – it receives its water supply from thin black irrigation tubes instead of from heaven, it gets its needed nutrients from the manufactured fertilizers instead of from the eternal mother earth. It is indeed a cool work. However, in my humble opinion, when given the choice, many orange trees would prefer not being confined in the egg-shell like jug but rather attach themselves to the earth and take root as deep as they could and receive its living water from the timely rainfall from heaven.

When I visited the Old Jaffa in the summer of 2018 I saw this masterpiece of the Floating Orange Tree. The unusual thing is it happens that there’s a Mobike of orange color parked beside it. Mobike happens to be a Chinese company and in China people often call by its nickname “orange bike”. 200 years ago when China and the Land of Israel were both agricultural societies, it was the tree of orange that connected the two ancient lands; 200 years later, when both countries have already evolved to technological powerhouses, it is technology that again brings the two countries together. What a transformation!

In the 21st century, the age of internet, Chinese, according to their levels of knowledge, still have very vastly different images of Israel: peace loving vs warlike; high-tech start-up nation vs backward Middle East country; land flowing with milk and honey vs land of desert, Dead Sea and desolation; a peaceful country with very high human development vs a war torn country where people struggle to survive… Maybe we can learn something from a Chinese orange story.

An ancient Chinese diplomat called Yanzi from the State of Qi of Spring and Autumn Period (2500 years ago) once used the orange to defend his nation from humiliation. When Yanzi was visiting the State of Chu as an ambassador, the King of Chu brought a caught thief from the State of Qi to the front of Yanzi and tried to humiliate him by asking, “Are all the people from the State of Qi good at stealing by nature?” Yanzi replied,

“Oranges grown south of the Huai River are sweet while north of the river are bitter. Although they resemble each other in the shape of leaves, they differ widely in taste. Why? The water and earth are different. A person who lives in the State of Qi does not steal but steals once entering the territory of Chu. Maybe the water and earth of Chu makes it so?” (“南橘北枳”)

For my Chinese friends who have doubts about whether the Land of Israel has good “water and earth” (“水土”) which cultivates amazing nature and cultures, I have a word to say: oranges grown in the North are bitter, in the South are sweet, in the land of Israel are called “Yafo”. Wherever there are good oranges and there is a meaningful future. One does not have to believe it but is always welcome to come and taste it.

About the Author
Gained M.A. in German studies. 4th cohort in the Weiss-Livnat MA program in Holocaust Studies. Licenced tour guide. Interested in China-Israel topics. Lover of history and Torah.