The Chinese term huanghuali literally means "yellow flowering pear" wood. It is a member of the rosewood family and is botanically classified as Dalbergia odorifera. In premodern times the wood was know as huali or hualu. The modifier huang (yellowish-brown) was added in the early twentieth century to describe old huali wood whose surfaces had mellowed to a yellowish tone due to long exposure to light. The sweet fragrance of huali distinguishes it from the similar appearing but pungent-odored hongmu.
The finest huanghuali has a translucent shimmering surface with abstractly figured patterns that delight the eye--those appearing like ghost faces were highly prized. The color can range from reddish-brown to golden-yellow. Historical references point to Hainan Island as the main source of huali. However, variations in the color, figure, and density suggest similar species sourced throughout North Vietnam, Guangxi, Indochina and the other isles of the South China Sea.