What’s the Deal With Mandarin Oranges

WTDWEverywhere during the Spring Festival are bushes of bright orange fruits: supermarkets, private homes, schools, government buildings, hospitals, and every single shop. Some big ones can reach meters high, with bright red envelops attached on the branches. The orange and green sea can amaze many foreigners and even non-Guangdong Chinese. Why Cantonese are so crazy about it during Chinese New Year? What does it represent? Are they edible?

Chinese, especially Cantonese can be very superstitious, although they call it a tradition in many cases. Many good or bad signs are based on nothing but homophonic puns, such as the number four means death. Luckily, the Cantonese pronunciation of Mandarin orange, ged1 (橘), is the same as吉, meaning auspicious from the expression dai6 ged1 dai6 lei6 (big auspiciousness, big benefit.) But this is not the whole story why it became so popular. Oranges are trees that fruit in the winter and are suitable for decoration as well. On the other hand, the color of the fruit is meant to symbolize gold. For all these reasons, Mandarin oranges are widely given as gifts, often coming with other real gifts, of course, and still attached to the branches.

An obvious question is, can you pick an orange from the bush next to the elevator and eat it? There are different species of Mandarin oranges. And the most common ones are the round Kumquats and Tangerines. Although they are edible species, the decorative potted plants have been bred—and probably pumped full of chemical fertilizer—to produce their color and unnaturally plentiful fruit. Best eat oranges sold for eating.

As they are one of the most important festive decorations during the Spring Festival in Guangdong, every family and business establishment has to buy some—small or big, depending on the expected returns—to express the wish of a better year. They can be purchased in the Welcome-Spring-Festival Flower Market, which opens about a week before Spring Festival every year, alongside many other flowers and bushes with auspicious shapes or names. The price can range from RMB 30 to thousands depending on size, amount of fruit and shape. Compact and intense framing are better than the saggy ones. They’re almost like Christmas trees in the West, but they must be brand new every year, because it’s a new year.