Image description: Two people shake hands before a large letter of recommendation. Symbols of approval surround them. End ID.
Image description: Two people shake hands before a large letter of recommendation. Symbols of approval surround them. End ID.

Illustration by Dulce Pop-Bonini

Under the Banyan Tree

Appreciating Banyan trees as they became a symbol of home after moving to a new country.

Oct 15, 2023

I come from the City of Banyans. From its expansive foliage a myriad of aerial roots sprout earthward, wavering in the breeze, at length plunging into soil. When the newborn roots settle, toughen, when their origin trunk retreat from sight,
A forest is formed.
A forest of banyans.
I grew up ambivalent towards the shades of green rustling between the window panes of my classroom, alongside the congested driveways, and above rowdy community parks. I always knew that my birthplace, Fuzhou, had so many banyan trees that it was nicknamed “The Banyan City,” but I never grew any more affection towards it than knowing that the dropped seeds from the tree smudged my mom’s windshields.
It seems like people only start to treasure things once they’ve become bygones. It is only when I immigrated to California, moved to New York, then to Australia, then to the UAE again, that this nostalgia of a cultural symbol started to tingle in my chest.
I started to ponder: what a marvelous plant?
That the fragile, frizzy fibers eventually become sturdy tree trunks?
That the accessory roots are not accessory, but future pillars of a forest?
I have begun an ambitious novel project in a land far from where I came from, where I decided to pen my banyans, and where the historical anecdote becomes inevitable.
The Fuzhou government has called for more banyan vegetation since the Song Dynasty. Banyan trees are not usually known for their height. They grow far and wide – a most appropriate choice of hideaway during Fuzhou’s unbearable summer heat. When the local governor Zhang Boyu ordered to “let the city be covered with green shades that no parasols be needed during summer,” officials and local citizens started to plant banyan trees that enveloped the firmament of this scorching city inch by inch. Since banyans thrive in humidity, they settled well into Fuzhou’s moist landscape through mass planting — a lovely reciprocation between humans and nature. Thus the name “City of Banyans” was born, and has remained in popularity alongside the banyans’ unending longevity.
Can you imagine: when the old trunk produces new roots while it slowly dies away, and the replenished roots provide more nutrients after they sink into soil — how long can a banyan tree persevere?
The one planted in Fuzhou National Forest Park is almost a thousand years old. Also named “The Banyan King” (although I despise that name to a great extent for its stupidity), the oldest banyan tree in China covers roughly 1,330 square meters of land with its canopy. In fact, the canopy ranges so wide that the park’s management installed concrete columns to support the outrageously wide-reaching branches. Some say that this tree was planted by our admired governor Zhang Boyu during the mass planting era, while others say that it was planted by three military officers during the Northern Song Dynasty when they were practicing martial arts. Nevertheless, the tree must have witnessed so much during the years he was alive — when Fuzhou succumbed under the Hongwu Emperor’s conquest, when Fuzhou became the starting point of Zhang He’s expeditionary treasure voyages, and when Fuzhou was occupied by the Japanese military during the second Sino-Japanese War — that the tree may have lost its origin itself during the surging tides of history.
My father and I had the conversation about immigrating to America under that tree. I wouldn’t even call it a conversation. I was too young. A gentle announcement, I would say, a kind of declaration that was followed by a casual “Do you want to move to America?”
I so hoped the smashed banyan seeds on the wooden plank, the overfed koi in the artificial lake, and the swaying roots could defend my reluctance to leave the place I called home. But this wavering little signal of another emerging twig was too trivial for the millenary canopy. It silently spectated my life-changing announcement.
My origin trunk did not try to keep me.
And off I branched to the United States of America.
Joy Li is Deputy Features Editor. Email them at
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