In the 5th Century, invaders from the north brought Buddhist ideas into the Chinese heartland, and an academy for religious study was founded at the foot of a mountain spur, just south of the Yellow River, in what is now Dengfeng County, Henan Province. Songyang Academy (嵩阳书院) must have been a pleasant spot. Steep mountains to the north offered an inspiring vista and sheltered monks from winter gales off the Gobi Desert.
Today Songyang Academy is still pleasant, with shade trees in summer and precious few tourists. There are enough historical treasures to warrant an entry fee, but the real attraction is the two remarkable trees in the garden courtyard, cypress-like conifers called Platycladus orientalis (側柏). Stories told about the two Songyuan Platycladus suggest that they may be among the very oldest trees in the world. The most prominent, named ‘General Two’, is fat and straight, several meters in diameter and split near the base like it was blown apart. Some branches sustain life through tenuous strands of twining bark, others are stone dead and look to have been weathering and eroding for centuries. The heaviest limbs are propped by stout cement pillars, buttressed by wooded beams. The second tree in the courtyard is called, ‘Great General’. It is nearly as weathered as General Two, but its girth is less and it slouches back against a wall in a retiring posture.
General Two and Great General are both said to be 4500 years old. I haven’t seen hard evidence of the trees’ antiquity, but there is a story of how Emperor Wu (born Liu Che) met these trees during his reign from 141-87 BC, and saw that they were already old at that time. The story must be less than 300 years old, but, since this is China, the events it recalls are within the scope of the historical record. One night in Dengfeng, I managed to translate it and discovered a cheeky send up of the Confucian mindset. For lack of another name, I will call it The Emperor’s Hasty Proclamation.
“When the Western Han emperor Liu Che passed through Song Mountain he saw a tall, straight cypress tree with lush foliage towering into the cloudy heavens and exclaimed, “Exploring the whole world, I have never seen such a large cypress tree, so I proclaim you as ‘Great General!’ Moving on after proclaiming the Great General, he didn’t get far before he saw another, even larger cypress tree. The Han Emperor thought, “This tree is even bigger than the first one, how shall I name it? Jade words from the golden mouth of the illustrious emperor are not easily changed.
“After pondering a moment, he pointed to this cypress tree and said, “I proclaim you as General Two.
“A little further on, the emperor saw an even taller, even larger cypress tree. Reluctantly, he said, “You are the biggest one of all, but I can only call you General Three.
“After the Han Emperor had finished naming the trees, he toured to another place, leaving these three huge cypresses, each with its own title. However, since the Han Emperor had named them incorrectly, their moods were conflicted. “Great General” the smallest cypress, had been proclaimed the largest, so it felt secret shame in its heart and lowered its head remorsefully, bent at the waist. General Two was more than dissatisfied, he was really angry, blown up in the belly to become the hollow tree we see today. And General Three, being the very largest of all the cypresses, with the title of the smallest, was so full of righteous anger that he consumed itself himself in flames.”
And here’s the story in Chinese:
On a courtyard wall at Songyuan Academy, there are three plaques that were carved by calligraphy master Gao in 1735. These probably depict the three Platycladus trees proclaimed by Emperor Wu 1800 years before. The tree in the middle looks just like General Two and the one on the left may be Great General. It seems that sometime between 1735 and when the story was written, the tree on the right, General Three, with the biggest stature and the least prestigious title, burned, a victim, the story would say, of righteous indignation.
Songyang Academy also has a collection of photographs that were taken around Dengfeng in the fall of 1906 by a Japanese archeological historian named Sekino Tadashi. After his trip to China, he became a professor at Tokyo University. His picture of General Two looks similar to what we see today.
Is 4500 years a plausible age for the Platycladus trees of Songyuan Academy? The pedigree of Platycladus is just right. It is a conifer in the cypress family; the four other species that produce the oldest trees in the world are all conifers too, and three of these species — each on a different continent — are also in the cypress family.
Here’s the list of the four tree species with individuals that have lived the longest:
(1) The White Mountain population of bristlecone pine Pinus longaeva in California has at least one individual with a verifiable age more than 4800 years.
(2) The Cypress of Abarkuh Cupressus sempervirens in Iran is 4000 years old.
(3) An alerce Fitzroya cupressoides in the Valdivian forest of Chile has a verified age of more than 3600 years.
(4) The Senator Tree, a (recently deceased) bald cypress Taxodium distichum in Florida was estimated to be 3500 years old when it burned in 2012.
Counting annual growth rings is problematical for ancient trees because they scarcely grow at all, and when they do it’s in a patchy sort of way that means a core sample on any radius toward the center will miss intervals during which other segments of the limb were growing. In an old senescent tree, wood at the core is likely to be decomposed. Cutting the tree completely might work – regretfully, that was done to one of the oldest bristlecone pines. For now, we can say the Songyuan Platycladus trees are are at least 2100 years old and acknowledge that the locally cited age of 4500 years is consistent with the ages of the other cypresses on the short list for oldest tree.