Transgendering of the Peony in East Asia


A review of From Bewitching Beauty to Effete King: Transgendering of King Peony in Medieval Chinese and Korean Literature, by Jeongsoo Shin.

The peony has come to have a variety of associations in the East Asian literary tradition. Its luxurious petals have signaled wealth and beauty while its peculiar, seedless manner of reproduction has come to symbolize sterility and empty luxury. It has even come to represent political power as a symbol of China as a nation, arguably one of its dominant associations today. In his fascinating account of the peony’s literary history, From Bewitching Beauty to Effete King, Jeongsoo Shin seeks to understand the evolving connotations of this one flower. Shin not only examines the literary traditions associated with the peony in medieval China, but traces the flower’s cultivation and literary symbolism as it traveled to Silla Korea (57 BCE–935 CE). As the peony’s gender was transformed in this process of transmission, it also acquired a separate set of symbolic resonances.

In Chapter 1, Shin gives an overview of the peony flower’s origins as a medicinal plant. Despite its connection with female allure in later literature, the flower, from a traditional horticultural perspective, possessed characteristics of both “male” and “female” plants. Understanding the peony’s origin as an androgynous, medical plant is essential for appreciating its subsequent emergence as a literary trope. Although it is difficult to establish exactly when the peony became a garden flower (pp. 21–27), its emergence in Tang China (618–907) as a significant literary trope was undoubtedly connected to its popular cultivation. New methods of cultivation produced varieties never before seen, and the peony’s chameleon-like ability to appear in different colors made it a “prodigy” (yao 妖) among flowers (pp. 32–35). By the High Tang, through the poetry of Li Bo  李白 (701–762), the peony flower came to be intertwined with the tragic figure of Consort Yang 楊貴妃 (719–756), on whom later writers blame the decline of the Tang, due to emperor Xuanzong’s 唐玄宗 (r. 712–756) singular attention to her. The flower thus emerged as a rather negative symbol, representing exuberance, luxury, and desire. Though its association with the court made it also a symbol of secular power, the flower enjoyed cultivation beyond the confines of the palace: Buddhist monasteries, among the locations famous for their flowers, sometimes supplied the imperial palace with peonies. Peony poetry took off in the late Tang in step with the development of peony as a fashionable commodity, and it was during this frenzy that the idiom “Guo se tian xiang” 國色天香, which Shin translates as “reigning beauty and heavenly fragrance,” first came to be attached to the flower in the poems of Li Zhengfeng 李正封 (771–844) (pp. 65–68). What is curious, however, is that despite its feminine allure the peony also acquired the epithet, “king of one hundred flowers” 百花王, a term that in all likelihood originally applied to other flowers than the peony (pp. 69–73).­

In Chapter 2, the author turns attention away from the poetry of the capital Chang’an to that of Luoyang, which emerged not only as a center for peony cultivation but a political and cultural center supplanting Chang’an amid the decline of the Tang. Here, the flower lost its connection with the Tang court per se, emerging as a symbol for “Chinese civilization” (pp. 79–82). Shin gives one poignant anecdote: as northern China was coming under the hegemony of the Northern Song (960–1127), southern kingdoms such as the Southern Han (917–971)  held on to their independence. The people of the Southern Han were disdainful of the “Central States” 中國. Proud of the jasmine flowers they cultivated, the southerners called them their “small southern vigor” 小南強. When the Han was conquered by the Song, the Han ruler was taken to Luoyang, only to be “terrified” by the size of the peony blossoms there, where, he was told, they were called “great northern victory” 大北勝 (pp. 83-85). Though the size of the peony blossoms may symbolize the power and strength of the “Central States,” others interpreted the “barren seeds in the large blossoms” to be indicative of “empty, superficial brilliance” (p. 87).

The flower found its way into the court politics of the early Song. Shin discusses the development of connoisseurship in terms of the political conflict between two courtiers, Qian Weiyan 錢惟演 (962–1034) and Li Di 李迪 (971–1047). While the latter was lauded for resisting the regency of the empress Dowager Liu 劉太后, Qian was seen as currying favor with the powerful. Criticism of Qian’s “peony cultivation” was an oblique criticism of Qian’s political position. Qian’s protégé, however, the well-known early Song statesman Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 (1007–1072) , not only refused to criticize his patron, he also celebrated the peony’s cultivation. His “Account of the Luoyang Peonies” 洛陽牡丹記 elevated the peony above all other flowers, and the peonies of Luoyang above the flowers of all other regions (pp. 93–94). The way Ouyang explains the lusciousness of the peony’s blossoms, however, was in terms of a “disease of [its] original, vital energy” 元氣之病. He too saw the peony as a prodigy of nature, but one that was remarkable as a “concentration of beauty” (p. 100). Its uncanny existence was for Ouyang not a vehicle for moral criticism; in Shin’s reading, Ouyang’s celebration of the aesthetics of peony cultivation was in fact a veiled political defense of his patron.

In Chapter 3, the author compares the ways the peony came to be associated with two female rulers, Queen Sŏndŏk 善德女王 (606–647) of Silla and Empress Wu Zetian 則天武后 (625–705) of the Tang. The author illustrates the way in which the gendered valence of the peony operated as political allegory. Raising several interesting botanical problems in the historical accounts associated with Queen Sŏndŏk, Shin concludes that the accounts are better read as fiction than historical fact. In one narrative, Queen Sŏndŏk deciphers a set of gifts sent to Silla by Tang Taizong 唐太宗 (r. 627–649): seeds of a peony plant and a painting of the flower without butterflies, a representation of a scentless flower. The scentless flower and its seeds were perceived as veiled insult from the Chinese ruler. The flower’s sterility represented Queen Sŏndŏk, a woman ruler without a spouse. Queen Sŏndŏk’s femininity and the emperor’s offering of the “Chinese seeds” to be “sown in the soil of the queen’s land” was understood as a sexual metaphor for Tang aggression (pp. 129–130).

In other anecdotes suffused with sexual metaphor, the queen is portrayed as possessing powers of clairvoyance, a demonstration of her virtue and sagacity. Although the gendered resonances of the peony helped augment the queen’s authority, in Confucian readings of these stories Sŏndŏk’s gender became a liability, resolved only when Silla accepted Tang hegemony and transitioned from “Buddhist aristocracy to Confucian monarchy” (p. 141). The way the peony has been leveraged as a criticism of Empress Wu, however, differed significantly, and took on a separate set of images. In one 11th century anecdote, the peony was the only flower that refused to bloom, despite the empress’s continued demands. In this narrative, Empress Wu’s subsequent banishment of the peony from Chang’an to Luoyang for not blooming at her whim highlighted the illegitimacy of her political power. As this story came to be repeated in several versions, the flower came to be recognized as a male “king of flowers” that resisted the illegitimate demands of a usurping female monarch (pp. 150–151). Shin extends his discussion of this peony motif to late imperial fiction, such as the late Qing literati novel, the Flowers in the Mirror 鏡花緣, where the peony is personified as a “Peony Fairy” (pp. 152–160). The author concludes the chapter with a discussion of how peony imagery was used to depict these rulers in light of how their reigns have been appraised. Near contemporaries, the peony lore surrounding these two monarchs could not have been more different, though the ways in which the peony came to be attached to these figures are still products of its gendered associations.

Shin dedicates Chapter 4 to a discussion of another political allegory featuring the peony. In the Korean dynastic history Samguk sagi 三國史記, the minister Sŏl Ch’ong 薛聰 (fl. 8th century) presents an “Admonition for King Peony” (Hwawang kye 花王戒) as remonstrance to his king. While the story has commonly been understood as a direct representation of Sŏl’s role in establishing Confucian governance in Silla, Shin prefers to see the story in the context of the 12th century politics of Koryŏ Korea (918 – 1392), in which the compiler of the Samguk Sagi, Kim Pu-sik 金富軾 (1075–1151), was deeply embroiled. After resolving a series of textual problems, many related to problematic attributions and anachronisms, Shin offers a fresh reading of this story by incorporating a discussion of the rich horticultural imagery it employs.

The horticultural dimension of the story helps reveals a separate set of concerns. Shin cautions against assuming that the literary conventions of Korean literature written in classical Chinese were necessarily shared with the Chinese tradition: the male gender of the peony as “king” prevalent in Korean literature stands in stark contrast with its persistent identification with female figures in the Chinese tradition. With this in mind, the author brings the study to a close with a discussion of “transgendering” and “transculturation.” Writing against what he believes to be the overemphasis of the peony as an embodiment or representation of “Chineseness,” which has “overshadowed other significant elements of the flower,” Shin has set out to give a more diverse reading of its valences within the Chinese literary tradition (p. 221). By bringing in the Korean literary context, he has pointed how the gendering of the peony as female cannot be taken for granted. Its “transgendering” was, then, a mechanism of “transculturation.”

Elucidating the many ways in which the literary symbol of the peony has been deployed in politics, Jeongsoo Shin’s dissertation offers a valuable approach to the study of medieval literature. Resisting reading the peony in terms of one set of symbolic associations requires an attentiveness to the manner of the flower’s cultivation and an awareness of the changing valences of an otherwise enduring literary symbol. The peony flower, after all, was not simply a discursive construct, but was cultivated by real people, for whom the peony had varied significances in their social lives. An awareness of the ways one particular motif could carry on varying if not contradictory resonances is essential for a historicized sensibility toward literary texts, especially when encountering familiar motifs in different cultural settings. As his discussion of the peony across time in the Chinese tradition and in the Korean context shows, the repeated use of one image may invoke rather diverse resonances and interpretive traditions. Such an approach, one must surmise, could bear considerable fruit in the study of other literary symbols as well.

Sixiang Wang
PhD Candidate
East Asian Languages and Cultures; History-East Asia.
Columbia University

Primary Sources

Chinese literary anthologies (bieji; zongji)
Chinese and Korean encyclopedias (leishu, yusŏ): e.g. Taiping yulan, Wenyuan wenhua, Shiwu jiyuan
Chinese and Korea literary miscellanies (biji, p’ilgi): e.g.  Youyang zazu, Xingshi hengyan, Chipong yusŏl
Korean histories: Samguk sagi, Samguk yusa , Koryŏsa.

Dissertation Information

University of Washington. 2011. 293 pp. Primary Advisor: David R. Knechtges.


Image: A painting of peonies by Chinese artist Yun Shouping 惲壽平 (1633-1690). Wikimedia Commons.

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