Also named leechee, lichee, lichi, or litchi (nut).
Lychee is a tall tropical evergreen tree of the soapberry family (Sapindaceae) native to southeastern China. It was recorded in the Xijing zaji (西京杂記, Miscellaneous records of the Western Capital), a collection of short semi-historiographical stories from the Western Han dynasty (西汉, 206 BCE-8 CE) court, that the governor of the South Sea used to send lychees to Emperor Liu Bang’s (刘邦, 256 – 195BCE) court as an imperial delicacy. The small fruit of lychee consists of a pink-red, roughly-textured skin, a translucent white fleshy aril, and a big or a shrivelled seed (known as the ‘chicken’s tongue’). The aromatic flesh of the fruit is juicy and sweet but its floral flavour would be easily lost and the rind would turn dark soon after harvesting. No wonder Emperor Xuanzong (玄宗, reigned 713 to 756 CE) of the Tang dynasty (唐朝) would deploy his Pony Express-like imperial couriers to deliver lychees to the capital in order to please his favourite concubine Lady Yang (杨贵妃, 719 – 756CE). The Tang poet Du Mu (杜牧, 803 – 852 CE) wrote, ‘The dust cloud behind a galloping horse in the distance brings a smile to Lady Yang’s face; because only she knows that means the arrival of her favourite lychees (一骑红尘妃子笑，无人知是荔枝來).’ In late imperial China, when pun rebus pictures became in vogue, the image of lychee appeared in designs where the sound ‘li’ is needed to indicate ‘li 利’ for ‘profit’ because the first character in the Chinese name for lychee, ‘lizhi 荔枝’, is also ‘li’.
The Europeans first saw lychee’s image in Michal Boym’s Flora Sinensis (1657), which contains an illustration of ‘Lici Fruit Tree’. Michal Boym is a Jesuit missionary from Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Fig 1-2: porcelain vase, Qianlong period (1736-96), Qing dynasty, courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Fig 3: pilgrim flask, Yongle period (1403-24), Ming dynasty, courtesy of the British Museum, London
Fig 4: Meiping, Yongle period (1403-1424), Ming dynasty, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Fig 5: cinnabar lacquer stem cup, 1400–1599, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Fig 6: cinnabar lacquer plate, 16th-17th century, courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Fig 7: cinnabar lacquer container, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei