The peony flower holds a special position in the hearts of the Chinese people and enjoys their admiration. It wins the reputation of “Queen of Flowers” for its large bud, bright color, delightful fragrance and great varieties, reminding people of wealth, fortune and prosperity.
Auntie Li, who lives in Zhengzhou (capital of Henan Province), came specifically to Luoyang to enjoy the beauty of the peonies. In front of a bed of peonies, she set up her drawing board and began portraying these buds of ravishing beauty and heavenly fragrance with watercolors. Peony buds on her drawing paper were red-to-pink and seemed to sway gently, while those outside the paper were even more splendid and richly multicolored. A peony blossoms with 3 or 4 buds, each of which is as big as an average bowl. The petals overlap in graceful disorder and closely wrap the pistils. With a light breeze, the delightful fragrance is wafted throughout the garden. “I have drawn peonies for more than 20 years,” said Auntie Li, “because I especially love them.”
The peony is not only fancied and appreciated by ordinary people such as Auntie Li but also by famous painters and poets. Many painters have drawn the peony with clever brush strokes and numerous poets have written exquisite poems in praise of its beauty. For instance, Bai Juyi, the distinguished Tang Dynasty poet, wrote a poem admiring this flower, “Xizi is the beauty of beauties, just as the peony is the queen of all flowers.” (Xizi refers to Xishi, one of the four beauties in ancient China)
The peony holds a special position in the hearts of the Chinese people and enjoys their admiration. It wins the reputation of “Queen of Flowers” for its large bud, bright color, delightful fragrance and great varieties, reminding people of wealth, fortune and prosperity. Places such as Luoyang (Henan Province), Heze (Shandong Province), Hanzhong (Shaanxi Province), Tongling (Anhui Province) and other places in China are especially well known for their peonies, and peony cultivation history is longer than 1,500 years. In addition, could only be found in China in the earliest time; thus, many Chinese people regard it as the national flower.
Peonies blossom in April. Bai Juyi and Liu Yuxi, two famous Tang poets, wrote poems about them: “In their 20-day flowering period, the whole city falls into peony fever.” and, “Only a peony can represent ravishing beauty, and only her bloom can attract all people to the capital city.” These poems vividly describe the exceptionally grand occasion during the Tang Dynasty when peonies were in full bloom. Even today, when April comes, visitors from China and abroad stream to the peony festival in Luoyang and vie with each other in admiring the beauty of the Queen of Flowers.
In China, there are many interesting legends about the plant. It is said on a day of December when Wu Zetian (the only female imperial ruler in Chinese history) was in power, heavy snow flakes were falling in Changan (capital city at that time- today’s Xian, Shaanxi). The empress, who had been drinking and composing impromptu poems, reached the height of her enthusiasm and ordered all flowers in the imperial garden to blossom overnight. All flowers bloomed the next day except the peony: it refused to bloom out of season. In a fury, Wu Zetian banished it to Luoyang; moreover, she condemned peony to the stake. Facing this calamity, the peony became solid ash but still remained as a whole, standing proudly in severe cold. When the spring breeze brought warmth next year, it blossomed even brighter, winning the title of “ash-bone peony”.
The unyielding, intrepid character that the peony represents is also the moral integrity that Chinese ancient literary people pursued; thus, there are many odes to the elegant peony.
If the peony represents the nobility of flowers, Yao-Yellow and Wei-Purple, the two most precious varieties during the Song Dynasty (960-1127) can be called the king and queen of peonies: Yao-Yellow has a soft-jade-like texture of light yellow; while Wei-Purple is purplish-red with a delicate, exquisite shape. It is believed that Yao-Yellow was cultivated by a common family named Yao, while Wei-Purple was grown by Wei Renfu, a prime minister of the Song Dynasty. Today, people still admire these two, second to none in the peony kingdom.
The beauty of peonies comes not only from their buds but also from their variety names taken from ancient Chinese beauties. For example, a powder-like blue variety is called “Zhaojun Leaving for the Frontier”; a pink-to-red one is “Drunken Beauty”; a variety that has two colors in the same bud is the “Qiao Sisters”; besides, there are “Guifei (the highest-ranking imperial concubine in ancient Tang China) with Jade”, “Fairy Maiden”, “Bathing LuoShen”, and so on.
Luoyang residents plant peonies if their home has a courtyard. Superficially, there seems a contradiction that the reserved Chinese people would admire the bold and dynamic peony. However, anyone who grows peonies knows that seeds must be soaked in water for 3 days before sowing, and then, people have to wait 3 years for its blossom. Perhaps such a gorgeous bloom after a long wait matches Chinese people’s philosophy of hiding one’s capabilities for a well-prepared performance at a favorable time; so, the peony has won the admiration of the Chinese people for generations.
Today, the peony also receives appreciation from other countries of the world. It was introduced to Japan around 724. More recently, France, the Netherlands, England and the United States successively imported the peony and have cultivated new varieties. At present, the peony is cultivated in more than 20 countries – thus the Chinese traditional “Queen of Flowers” spreads its delightful fragrance all over the world and wins more and more acclaim.
Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 14. Volume 3. May 2011.
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