The Hidden Meaning of Peaches in Chinese Art

Aggiornamento: 19 feb 2021

Di Rachele Rosina


Chinese porcelains offer a double joy to the viewer: firstly, the immediate pleasure of the eyes, that enjoy the aesthetically beautiful designs; and secondly the more intellectual and deep pleasure derived from the understanding of the hidden meanings in their decorations.


Auspicious motives can convey wishes for blessings in the form of a happy marriage with nomerous offspring; for wealth, longevity as well as success in the sivil service examination and in the official rank.

There are three possible ways they can be expressed: the easiest and quickest one is to write the character that express the required symbol (es. shou 寿, “longevity”, is one of the most popular character depicted on porcelain); the second method is to use well-know symbols, such as using long-lived plants standing for longevity; lastly, using rebuses or pictorial pun.

In this article, we will show you the hidden meaning of peaches on Chinese porcelain, continue reading!


Tianqiu vase or “globular” vase with peaches - Fencai or famille rose porcelain Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period (1711-1799)

The shape of the vase above is called tianqiu, “celestial globe” or “globular vase” due to the particular shape of its body. It was first created during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644)and it is characterized by a slightly concave base, heavily rounded bulbous body, long straight neck and small mouth.

The decoration, painted with vivid colours stands, out on a simple white ground: the delicate flowers of two or three row of petals are painted with yellow and pink shades, branches are brown while leaves are depicted with different green nuances.

The artist did not represent the entire peach tree on this vase, but he rather focused on a single branch. It emerges from the base, stretches along the neck and bends just under the mouth. Nine peaches are depicted on the body, underlining the characteristic bulge, while blossoms and a buds spread all-over the branches from the top to the base.


PEACHES

Also known as “Fairy Fruit”, all of its parts are used in the Chinese traditional medicine as a cure for several diseases: the fruit for lungs, kernels are prescribed in coughs, rheumatism and worms, while flowers are used as laxative. Moreover, its wood was considered sacred and used as a charm against evil spirits.

Maybe it is especially for its curative properties that it has been associated to immortality and longevity since ancient times and that made the peach one of the most common and important motif in Chinese decorative art.

According to Taoist mythology, peaches of immortality grow in the Queen Mother of the West’s[1] orchard on Kunlun Mount whose trees blossom there every three thousand years and peaches take three thousand years more to ripen. Then the Queen invites all the immortals to celebrate her birthday with a peach banquet to ensure their immortality.

Many other Taoist deities are depicted with peaches, such as for Lao Shouxing[2] the venerable God of Longevity, the junior goddess Magu[3], but also the legendary thief Dongfang Shuo[4] and the immortal He Xiangu[5], for example.

Conveying wishes for longevity and good fortune, peaches are a perfect decorative motif for birthday presents.

Jiutao xianshou 九桃献寿 “Nine peaches offer longevity

The representation of nine peaches is a common motif used from the Qianlong period, differentiating from the Yongzheng one in which only eight fruits were depicted. Adding a peach confers the meaning of the number nine to the design, a further pun for “eternity” and, in extenso, “longevity”.


PEACH BLOSSOMS

Less used in decorations than the fruit, peach blossom carries the same meaning of longevity.

As the peach tree blooms in March, it is a symbol of the spring. During the Spring Festival, peach trees and other special flowering fruit tree are grown in every house and the amount of blossoms during the celebrations is considered an indication of the amount of wealth the family would acquire during the upcoming year. Moreover, sprays of blossom are placed on the door in order to prevent evil spirits from entering the houses.

In ancient China it also symbolised love. As they bloom in spring, the preferred season for weddings, it became soon emblem of marriage.


The painting on this vase is realistic as it represents the peaches and the tree in all their details, even the flaws and bruises, but does not depict reality. It is not a photography of a real moment, as the simultaneous presence of all the phases of the blossoming until the full maturity of the fruits is impossible in nature. However, this anachronism could be seen as the synthesis of all the stages of the life of the fruit, and embodying the temporal continuity, it recalls the meaning of longevity.


 

[1] Xi Wang Mu西王母 (Queen Mother of the West): the origin of her cult can be traced back to the Bronze Age, through the Six Dynasties (1400 B.C. – 600 B.C.). She became the greatest goddess of the Chinese Taoist pantheon and subject of poems during the Tang dynasty (618-907). Medieval Taoist considered her embodiment of the yin force, creator of the word and maintainer of the cosmic harmony.


[2] Lao Shouxing 老寿星: Very popular and frequently portrayed, he has a prominent cranium, big ears and long drooping eyebrows. Usually, he is depicted holding a giant peach in his right hand and carrying a walking stick with a gourd containing a life-giving elixir on his left. He can also be accompanied by cranes, spotted deer or a young boy holding a peach; in the background there can be pine trees, cypress or other evergreen trees – all of them are symbols of longevity.


[3] Magu 麻姑: She is represented as a beautiful young women, often accompanied by a fawn and carrying a basket of peaches or a jar of lingzhi fungus wine, her famous longevity elixir. Her portrait was a popular birthday gift among women in Imperial China because she combined beauty and longevity.


[4] Dongfang Shuo 东方朔: hailed from the court of Emperor Wu (30 June 156 BC – 29 March 87 BC) of the Han dynasty, he is the man who is said to have lived 18000 years after stealing the peaches of immortality from the Queen Mother of the West’s Orchard . His image first appeared in the folk porcelains of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, depicted as an ordinary old man running with a branch of peaches and glancing back over his shoulder.


[5] He Xianggu 何仙姑: patron of housewives: easily recognizable since she is the only true female along the Eight Immortals. The legend says she lived during the 7th century A.D. and she was a shopkeeper’s daughter of Lingling, in Hunan. Once she got lost in a forest and threatened by a demon, but Lu Dongbin (another immortal) saved and turned her into an Immortal too thanks to a peach of immortality. Her emblem is a lotus, but she can also be depicted carrying peaches.


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