The Peony: An Embodiment of Grace and Majesty

In the Shen Yun 2011 female dance Ladies of the Tang Palace, palace maidens of the great Tang Dynasty elegantly danced in wide-sleeved robes—as if celestial maidens descended to the mortal realm in front of the audience’s eyes and embodied the true meaning of the word “grace.” Blooming at the hems and cuffs of their skirts were radiant peonies.

Amidst colorful bouquets of flowers, the most eye-catching is often the peony. It has a graceful and luxurious form, with layer upon layer of petals reaching into the hundreds; its colors vibrant yet elegant—deep red, light pink, golden yellow, and royal purple—all in perfect balance. Its dignified bearing commands respect and solemn awe yet without any pretense, embodying the majesty befitting a royal family appointed by the heavens. No wonder peonies often bloom in imperial gardens, regarded by the people as symbols of wealth and a noble spirit. Perhaps this is why the peony has been revered as the national flower of China since the Ming Dynasty.

Throughout history, poets and literati have vied to extol the beauty of the peony. During the Tang Dynasty, the admiration for peonies was widespread. Every flowering season, the entire capital would flock to appreciate the flowers, inspiring the famous line by poet Liu Yuxi, "Only peonies truly exhibit the Empire’s colors, stirring all the capital when they bloom."

During the Tang era, the tradition of appreciating and praising peonies was especially prominent. One day, Emperor Wen and his consort Yang were admiring peonies in the palace. Emperor Wen, who was fond of poetry, asked the painter Cheng Xiuji, "Among the peony poems circulating in the capital, whose is the best?" Cheng Xiuji replied that it was the poem "Peony" by the imperial courtier Li Zhengfeng: "The Empire’s beauty intoxicates the nose, and Heaven’s fragrance dyes the Evening’s clothes." The poem uses "Heaven’s fragrance" to describe the peony's scent as if it descended from Heaven and "the Empire’s beauty" to liken the peony's color to the awe-inspiring qualities of a flourishing empire's beauty. From then on, "the Empire’s beauty and Heaven’s fragrance" became the exclusive epithet for peonies.

Since ancient times, beautiful ladies have often been compared to flowers. So what kind of woman deserves the epithet "the Empire’s beauty and Heaven’s fragrance" like the peony? During the Tang Dynasty, Bai Juyi said: "The unparalleled one is only Xi Shi; among the many flowers, only the peony." This means Xi Shi is the foremost beauty, just like the peony outshines other flowers.

The Tang poet Li Bai wrote a peony poem about another of the Four Great Beauties of Chinese history—Yang Guifei—a poem that has been passed down through the ages. During Emperor Xuanzong's reign, he and Yang Guifei were in the palace's Sandalwood Pavilion admiring peonies. The musicians were about to perform, but Emperor Xuanzong said, "To appreciate famous flowers with the consort, how can we use old musical phrases?" So, he ordered Li Bai to compose a poem. Li Bai came and wrote the "Three Poems of Qingping Melody" on golden flower paper, which became the pinnacle of flower poetry. The first poem goes:

The clouds like swirling clothes, the flowers like a face,
The Spring breeze brushes railings, dewdrops condensate.
If you don’t see her at the mountaintop displayed,
Meet there beneath the moon at the terrace known as Jade.

This poem not only praises the peony but also embodies the majesty of the golden age of Chinese civilization—the Tang Dynasty. It is a majesty that can also be found in Shen Yun’s dance piece Ladies of the Tang Palace and that Shen Yun Collections seeks to bring to you and your loved ones through peony-inspired pieces its designers and craftsmen work to create. The culture of the peony is a tradition and treasure ripe for rediscovery.

1 comment

Wonderful content; enjoyed learning more about the peony (which is also my favorite flower since childhood). Thank you so much!

Barbara Gay March 24, 2024

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