Andrew Singer Talks About China
Vol. 2, Issue 8
Autumn has arrived. A crispness is in the air. The days are getting shorter, the trees are shedding their leaves, and animals are preparing their burrows for the winter to come. I have been reading an article on a Ming Dynasty landscape painting heavy on symbolism of the Daoist quest for immortality. Immortality. Longevity. Peaches. This Issue discusses the connection among the three in China.
Peaches and Immortality
Peaches hold a special place in Chinese culture, art, and literature. They represent longevity and wishes for a long life. References to the illustrious peach are weaved into poems and prose, including Journey to the West and “Peach Blossom Spring.” They are painted on scrolls, album leaves, snuff bottles, pottery, and wallpaper. They are reproduced as cups, saucers, and boxes. There is even a type of peach-shaped bread bun.
In the Ming Dynasty novel, Journey to the West, the Jade Emperor appoints the Great Sage Equaling Heaven (popularly known as the Monkey King) to be guardian of the Heavenly Peach Orchard. There are 3,600 trees in Monkey’s new realm.
‘The ones growing at the front have tiny blossoms and small fruits, and they ripen every three thousand years. Anyone who eats them becomes an immortal and understands the [Daoist] way, and his body becomes both light and strong. The twelve hundred in the middle have multiple blossoms and sweet fruits, and ripen every six thousand years; whoever eats them can fly and enjoy eternal youth. The back twelve hundred are streaked with purple and have pale yellow stones. They ripen once every nine thousand years, and anyone who eats them becomes as eternal as Heaven and Earth, as long-lived as the Sun and Moon.’
Alas, when the Queen Mother of the West sends her seven fairies to the Heavenly Peach Orchard to gather fruit for the Queen’s Peach Banquet, they discover that the fruit in the back of the orchard is gone. The mischievous and unrepentant Monkey King has plundered the back trees and eaten all of the ripe, immortal fruit.
Golden peaches were sent from Samarkand in the west (a Silk Road city in present-day Uzbekistan) to Tang Dynasty Chang’an in the east (modern day Xi’an) during the seventh century CE. Because of their golden color, they were deemed acceptable to plant in the Imperial orchards. Some claimed that these fruits were able to be propagated in China “by grafting a peach branch to a persimmon tree.”
The peach is the symbol of Shoulao, the God of Longevity. This eighteenth-century, peach-shaped box from the Palace Museum has a wood core decorated in gold and polychrome lacquer. The outer design includes landscape scenes and auspicious longevity symbols. The four, smaller, peach-shaped containers inside each display a character on its lid, and the four characters together, wanshou wujiang, mean boundless longevity.
Many rebuses in Chinese art involve the auspicious peach. Groupings of peaches (from two to nine) denote wishes for a long life. A peach, pomegranate, and Buddha’s hand citron together represent a desire for an abundance of blessings, sons, and longevity. Peaches and bats represent a wish to possess both blessings and longevity.
On the snuff bottle above, a hardy peach tree grows from a rock stretching out over crashing waves in a roiled ocean. Five pieces of ripe fruit hang from the branches, while a bat flies nearby. This combination of symbols is a rebus for 寿山福海, shoushan fuhai – May you be blessed by the mountain of longevity and the sea of blessings.
Qi Baishi (1864-1957), a self-taught painter originally from Hunan Province, was known for his whimsy. He often painted colorful peaches of immortality.
Bread buns, with or without sweet fillings, are common in Chinese cuisine. These are 寿桃包, shoutao bao, steamed longevity, peach-shaped buns. They are often filled with lotus seed or red bean paste, custard or taro. Eating them promises a long and healthy life.
“Peach Blossom Spring,” 桃花源, taohuayuan, is a famous tale written by poet Tao Yuanming (365-427 CE) during the chaotic and strife-filled Six Dynasties Period in 421 CE. It has been memorialized in paintings ever since as a symbol of finding peace and the existence of heaven on earth.
…a certain fisherman lived in the village of Wuling. One day, so engrossed in exploring the stream of a river, he failed to notice how far he had travelled. Suddenly, the fisherman saw that he had chanced upon a forest of peach trees in full bloom lining both banks of the river for a great distance. Within this peach orchard, there were no other trees.
A myriad of scented petals floated gently downward, lining both sides of the river. The exquisite beauty of the scene, as well as the perfumed fragrance of the peach blossoms, filled the fisherman with awe. Anxious to see how far this scene of enchantment extended, the fisherman quickly continued onward. He found that the forest of peach trees ended at the source of the river, at the base of a mountain. And within this mountain was a narrow opening illuminated by a shaft of light.
The fisherman tied up his boat and struggled to squeeze through a passage so narrow that a man could only with great effort continue on. But when at last he had crawled out the other side, he found himself looking out upon vast farmland and imposing farmhouses, fertile fields, beautiful lakes, mulberry trees and bamboo groves. The fields were divided by footpaths, cocks crowed, dogs barked, and the dress of the inhabitants at work or at leisure was not unusual. Both young and old seemed cheerful and content.
The fisherman had stumbled into a paradise long hidden from the vicissitudes of the world. The villagers tell him that their ancestors had fled here hundreds of years before to escape the ravages of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE). Since then, there had been no further contact with the outside world, and life had been peaceful.
The villagers were friendly and welcomed the stranger to their homes with food and drink. After several days enjoying their hospitality, he took his leave. Though they requested that he keep their existence a secret, the fisherman marked the trail back through the narrow passage to the peach-lined river and shared news of his wondrous journey when he returned home.
Naturally, many then tried to find this special place. Officials sent out expeditions, while others made the attempt on their own. But they were all in vain, and often came to ruin for the attempt. The entrance to the wondrous Peach Blossom Spring remains a secret.
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Wu Cheng’en, Journey to the West, Vol. 1, W.J.F. Jenner, Tr., Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1982 (2002), Page 79
Edward H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, University of California Press, Berkley, 1963 (1985), Pages 117-119
Great article on the meaning of peaches and immortality. Thanks!