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Peach blossoms in Chinese literature

MA YUE | 2019-02-28 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Details from “Mandarin Ducks Under Peach Blossoms” by an anonymous artist of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279)  Photo: FILE


 

The Chinese culture is rich with flower symbolism permeating both cultural practices and artistic expression. Peach blossoms have been the muses of Chinese literati for a long time.
The ancient Chinese believed that peach wood could protect people from spectral evils. In traditional Chinese medicine, peach is the king of the Five Fruits (the other four are red dates, plums, apricots and chestnuts). Peach kernels are a common ingredient used in traditional Chinese medicine and the raw material of jewelry. The Chinese endow this plant with their feelings and experiences, creating an object of rich cultural significance.

 

Romance
Peach blossoms are regarded as the sign of spring because they appear before the leaves sprout. Ancient poets often invoked peach blossoms as the prelude to spring in their poems, celebrating the vitality they possessed.


Peach blossoms are often associated with love and marriage, because spring is traditionally regarded as a season of romance. According to the Rites of Zhou, the middle of spring is a period when men and women fall in love freely. Even elopement was permitted at that time. “The Beautiful Peach” (“Tao Yao”), a poem from the Classic of Poetry (the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BCE), starts with the praise of peach blossoms as a metaphor for the charm of a bride—“The peach tree stands wayside,/ With blossoms glowing pink./ I wish the pretty bride/ Affluence in food and drink.” “The Beautiful Peach” starts a tradition of comparing beauty to peach blossoms as they both have bright colors, elegant figures and a light scent. After the Wei and Jin dynasties (220–589), beauties were portrayed in a more detailed way with words like taohua mian (peach-blossom-like face) or tao sai (peach-blossom-like cheek). The word tao (peach) also frequently appears in women’s names.


Peach blossoms also remind people of beautiful ladies in love. People often used peach blossoms that had fallen off their trees into mud to express their sentiments over romances that came to an end. The Southern Song poet Lu You (1125–1210) was forced by his mother to divorce his wife Tang Wan. Eight years later, he encountered Tang and her husband in a garden. With a broken heart, he wrote the famous poem, “Phoenix Hairpin” (“Chaitou Feng”), in which he compares their love to peach blossoms and then has to face the truth that the peach blossoms have withered—“As peach flowers, into petals, left in a stream./ Though for me, our vow of love for e’er still hold,/ How could I write you love-letters as of old?/ No! No! No! Such things cannot be done!” (Translated by Xu Zhongjie).


Peach blossoms have inspired many romantic stories. Take a well-known poem by the Tang poet Cui Hu (772–846) for example— “Within this gate on this same day last year,/ Cheeks and peach flowers out bloomed each other here./ Her very cheeks can now be found no more./ The peach flowers smile in spring wind as before” (translated by Ma Hongjun). Based on this poem, the Tang literati Meng Qi worked out a story, in which the scholar Cui Hu goes for a spring outing on the Qingming Festival and is impressed by a graceful lady smiling among peach blossoms. He goes to visit her on the same day of the next year, finding the peach blossoming as before, but she is gone. Then he writes this poem on her door. Some days later, Cui returns to her house and hears astounding news that the lady, who was depressed by his poem, starved herself to death. When Cui is crying in her house, something magic happens. The lady returns to life! Meng Qi gave a happy ending to the story, and peach blossoms were constantly cited as a symbol of love in many other works.

 

Virtue
In ancient literature, peach blossoms were also used to express complex emotions, positive or negative.


The famous saying “Tao li bu yan, xia zi cheng xi,” or “The peach and the plum do not speak, yet a path is born beneath them,” is often used to describe that a man of virtue attracts admiration. The saying originated from the story of General Li Guang (?–119 BCE) of the Western Han Dynasty. Though being a well-respected general who fought primarily in the campaigns against the nomadic Xiongnu tribes, Li was very modest and hardly able to get a word out. When he died, people all mourned deeply for him. The Records of the Historian comments on him with this observation: Peach and plum trees grow quietly and never show off, yet people still are attracted by them because of their sweet fruits and charming blossoms, and a path is trodden out to them. Here peach trees represent a person of sincerity and honesty, whom others will follow without being told.


However, peach blossoms or trees do not always signify a good personality. In an ironic poem, the great poet Li Bai (701–762) compared toadies in the court to peach blossoms, showy but short-lived, rotting in mud when spring passed. Peach blossoms also signified disapproval of personality when compared with the other plants or flowers by literati. For instance, they were regarded not as courageous as plum blossoms who stood against the harsh winter, not as long-lived as pine trees and less pure than orchids.

 

Life and death
Peach trees were originally known by their vitality and rich fruits. Hence, they were considered a symbol of fertility. In a poem by the Tang poet Wang Jian, the palace maids experience deep sorrow upon seeing peach blossoms, because they feel trapped in the palace. There is no way for them to get married and have children like common people.


Since peach blossoms bloom for spring only, just as a person’s youth and beauty fades, some believed that these vulnerable flowers represented beautiful, yet short-lived young women. It is said that Lady Xi, or Duke Xi’s wife during the Spring and Autumn Period, was taken away from her husband and was forced to marry the king of Chu. She felt ashamed and committed suicide. People who felt sorry for her experience honored her as the Lady Peach Blossom.

 

Longevity
During prehistory, religious rituals were often held among mulberry trees or peach trees. Peach trees and fruits have special meaning in Chinese mythology. Kua Fu, a giant in Chinese mythology, wishes to capture the sun and follows the sun from the east to the west. However, he dies of dehydration. The wooden club he was carrying grows into a vast forest of peach trees. Peach trees became the totem of the Kua Fu tribe, conveying a sense of reverting to one’s origin or hometown. During the Warring States Period, people began to carve the divine guardians of doors and gates, Shenshu and Yulü, on peach wood slips and placed them over their doors to protect against evil influences or to encourage the entrance of positive ones. It became a tradition of the Chinese New Year.


Although the peach tree is not an evergreen plant, its fruit is regarded as a divine object in ancient works, representing long life and health. The Taoists believed that eating peaches could make a person immortal. In the Chinese classical novel Journey to the West, the Monkey King steals and consumes Xi Wangmu’s peaches of immortality. Influenced by this belief, peaches symbolize the wish for a long life and have become an important element of birthday gifts for the elderly people in China.


A peach forest is the setting of the famous Chinese text, “The Peach Blossom Spring” by Tao Yuanming (?–427). Tao depicted an ethereal utopia where the people lead an ideal existence in harmony with nature, unaware of the outside world for centuries. The secret village hides in a forest of blossoming peach trees, where even the ground is covered by peach petals. The text was written during a time of political instability and national disunity, revealing Tao’s desire to seek inner peace and relief from reality. The text inspired many later poems, and the Peach Blossom Spring became a common pursuit of all Chinese literati when they were struggling in the real world.

 

The article was edited and translated from the Journal of Changchun Normal University. Ma Yue is from Changchun Normal University.

(edited by REN GUANHONG)

 
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