Oranges are probably one of the best-known fruits in the world, with a large number of varieties. The mandarin is a small and distinct species of orange, and in China there is a variety so sweet and juicy it has long been given as a tribute to Chinese emperors – the Nanfeng sweet orange.
This small orange is so good, in 2017 the total output of Nanfeng honey oranges exceeded 1.5 billion kilograms and the export volume reached 200 million kilograms to more than 100 countries, making it the most exported orange from China.
There is an old Chinese saying that while an orange tree south of the River Huai – which divides north and south China – can produce sweet fruit, north of the River Huai can only produce bitter citrus. Although a metaphor meant to show how different people need to be in different places to prosper, it also tilts at how important the environment is for orange-growing.
Nanfeng is located in southeastern Jiangxi Province, with a subtropical climate, abundant sunshine, good rainfall and a long frost-free period. The local soil is rich in minerals with a red coloration, which helps to explain why Nanfeng oranges have a bright, golden skin. Records show that Nanfeng sweet oranges have been grown for around 1,700 years and they became a tribute fruit around 1,300 years ago during the Tang Dynasty.
Zeng Gong, born in Nanfeng and one of the Eight Great Poets of the Tang and Song Dynasties, wrote a poem in praise of the Ruju orange and promoted it to the emperor. During the Song Dynasty, the fruit was widely considered the best mandarin variety, and later studies confirmed Ruju as the origin of the Nanfeng sweet orange.
Today Nanfeng sweet oranges are one of 200 geographical indications (GI) protected against imitation and misuse under an agreement between China and the European Union that came into effect in March 2021. GIs help to maintain the quality and integrity of authentic foods.
The Nanfeng sweet orange is easy to peel and has few seeds. It is juicy, fragrant, tender, and rich in nutrition. The harvest season runs from November through to the Chinese New Year, making it a perfect New Year gift for family and friends. There are about 50,000 farmers in Nanfeng County, and almost every household grows oranges. When the fruit is ripe, you can smell its fragrance floating in the air.
Varieties of the Nanfeng orange were brought to Japan centuries ago and called Kishu. Although it has an earlier season and a slightly firmer flesh with a tighter rind, recent studies of DNA markers by Tokurou Shimizu, a Japanese citrus scientist, suggest that the Nanfeng sweet orange and Kishu are similar.
In the 1990s, as more farmers started to grow oranges in Nanfeng and adjacent regions, the domestic market started to become saturated. It was then that large-scale exports of the Nanfeng orange began.
Wang Jie, general manager of Hongyun Fruits Company, was one of the first people to export oranges from Nanfeng. After studying international trade in college, she returned to her hometown to help her father, Wang Hongbin, manage the family orange business.
With her expertise and the high quality of the Nanfeng mandarin, Wang soon found a lucrative market in Southeast Asia, helping the family business out of a crisis. After this success, she shared her dealer network with other growers in Nanfeng, helping them to enter international markets.
In 2005, Nanfeng sweet oranges were exported to the European Union for the first time. In 2020, as part of phase one of the US-China trade deal, US authorities approved the import of five types of fresh citrus fruit from China, including Nanfeng sweet oranges.