Beijing, 22 November 2013

There is a joke that northern Chinese crack about their cousins in the south, to the effect that southerners eat everything on four legs except the table they are sitting at. When they tell this joke to foreigners they will helpfully go on to explain that southerners eat absolutely everything. I think many foreigners are bemused by this distinction which northerners make between themselves and their southern cousins, since it seems to most of us that northerners will also eat everything. I mean, which tourist in Beijing has not visited the food night market in Wanfujing road and seen scorpions and other insects being offered as delicacies to nibble?

scorpions on wanfujing road

And what about the disgusting stinky tofu which all Chinese – northerners and southerners alike – delight to eat?

eating stinky tofu-3

Looking beyond these extremes of eating behaviour, it is true to say that the Chinese have a very deep and intense relationship with food. I have been told that this is because hunger and starvation is still a recent experience for many. One of my staff, for instance, who is my age, once told me that her sister, who is five-six years younger than her, is smaller because she was born in a time of intense hunger. I don’t disagree with this; hunger can certainly make you focus obsessively on food. Nevertheless, I think the Chinese’s intense love of food goes beyond lingering memories of hungry times; they have an existential relationship with their food. Whenever I see a group of Chinese about to sit down to eat, they remind me of a group of Englishmen about to enter a pub. They suddenly all brighten up, start talking and laughing loudly, and generally behave as if this was the most wonderful moment of their lives.

I was reminded of all this recently when my wife and I were nosing around a Chinese chemist (drug store to my North American friends), looking at the weird and wonderful things which the Chinese are willing to eat or drink for their supposed medicinal value.


As I poked around in the various cases, I stumbled across this.


It was marked as “chuan bei”.  After some research, I discovered that these odd things were the bulbs of a species of fritillary, fritillaria cirrhosa. The Chinese take it as a cough medicine, along with “zhe bei”, the bulbs of another species of fritillary, fritillaria verticillata.

Some of you may be asking yourselves what a fritillary is. It’s a flower, a beautiful bell-shaped flower. The commonest European variety is the snake’s head,  fritillaria meleagris

snakes head fritillary

The common name probably derives from the flower’s somewhat snakelike appearance when it nods in the wind on its long stem.

As for the name fritillary, it derives from the Latin term for a dice-box (fritillus), probably because of the checkered pattern on the petals of many of the fritillary species.


I must confess that I’ve never seen the snake’s head in the flesh. I first came across it in a book with absolutely lovely photos; the book is now slumbering along with all of my other books in a storage depot in Vienna. There was a photo of snake’s head fritillaries in the meadow of Magdalen College, Oxford. The following picture is not as beautiful but it does give a sense of how wonderful that meadow must be when the snake’s heads are in bloom.

magdalen meadow

A visit to Magdalen meadow is one of the things on my bucket list, along with visits to other ancient hay meadows in England which have retained their annual crop of snake’s heads: Fox Fritillary Meadow:

Fox Fritillary meadow

North Meadow in Crickdale:


and no doubt others. I also have to travel to Sweden to see it there:


as well as to the high Alpine meadows to see a cousin, the meleagride alpino, or fritillaria tubiformis:

fritillaries in the alps

I have to hurry up. There was a time when snake’s heads were plentiful in the UK. They grow best in heavy, marshy soils, the same soils which make the best hay meadows. When we rode horses, hay was a valuable commodity and hay meadows – and the snake’s heads – were to be found everywhere. But cars came, horses disappeared, and then – the final blow – during World War II many of the meadows were ploughed under for food production. Now the flower is endangered.

So as I sit here and look at these beautiful flowers and mourn their passing glory, I see a fundamental difference between me and the Chinese. I say “how beautiful!”, they say “what’s it taste like?”


scorpions on Wanfujing Road: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/72103761.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/72103761%5D
Eating stinky tofu: http://aningredientaday.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/stinky.jpg
Chinese medicine: http://www.funcage.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Snake-Wine.jpg [in http://www.funcage.com/blog/8-strange-foods-that-will-make-you-cringe/%5D
Chuan Bei Mu bulbs: http://www.ioffer.com/img/item/198/952/678/2lb-bulbus-fritillariae-cirrhosae-chuan-bei-mu-ceba5.jpg [in http://www.ioffer.com/i/2lb-bulbus-fritillariae-cirrhosae-chuan-bei-mu-198952678%5D
Snakes head fritillary: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/60/Fritillaria_meleagris_MichaD.jpg/512px-Fritillaria_meleagris_MichaD.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F._meleagris%5D
Fritullus: https://www.uni-erfurt.de/imgs/7944 [in https://www.uni-erfurt.de/max-weber-kolleg/personen/wolfgangspickermann/roemische-inschriften-in-germanien/kleininschriften/%5D
Magdalen meadow: http://www.gardenista.com/files/styles/733_0s/public/fields/magdalen%20meadow%20by%20Andrew%20Johnson.jpg [in http://www.gardenista.com/posts/how-to-make-a-fritillary-meadow%5D
Fox fritillary meadow: http://squeezyboy.blogs.com/photos/fox_fritillary_meadow/framsden_fritilliary_meadow_009.jpg [in http://squeezyboy.blogs.com/photos/fox_fritillary_meadow/framsden_fritilliary_meadow_009.html%5D
North Meadow Crickdale: http://www7.clikpic.com/RobertHarvey/images/UK11-176_Snakes_head_fritillaries_Fritillaria_meleagris_North_Meadow_Cricklade_Wiltshire.jpg [in http://www.robert-harvey.co.uk/articles_177296.html%5D
Kungsängslilja: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b2/Sandemar_f%C3%A5gelseservat_2012a.jpg/600px-Sandemar_f%C3%A5gelseservat_2012a.jpg [in http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kungs%C3%A4ngslilja%5D
Fritillaries in the Alps: http://www.actaplantarum.org/floraitaliae/download/file.php?id=67858 [in http://www.actaplantarum.org/floraitaliae/viewtopic.php?t=2255%5D