The following watercolor paintings are part of series by Zou Yigui 鄒一桂 (1686–1772), a famed court painter of the Qing Dynasty. The style is a unique blend of traditional Chinese and western style botanical illustration. This mixing of traditions lends the flower greater dimension, but also gives it a somewhat stilted quality. Earlier classical Chinese paintings of tree peonies are less detailed, but more fluid in their representation.
The two large red stamps which appear on the upper portions of the paintings are the imperial seals of the Emperors Qianlong and Jiaqing. As part of the prized imperial collection of the Qing dynasty, these paintings now reside in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.
These images help to demonstrate the extraordinarily long time that tree peonies have captivated emperors, painters and gardeners. These paintings are almost 250 years old, some of the varieties shown have been grown for over 1000 years, and yet they still inspire us and so many others.
Some of the varieties, like ‘Yao’s Yellow’ and ‘Wei’s Purple’ depicted in this series of paintings are mentioned in the Record of the Tree Peonies of Luoyang by the Song dynasty literati Ouyang xiu (1007-1072 CE).
In Record of the Tree Peonies of Luoyang, Ouyang Xiu relates that: “People call the tree peony the ‘king of flowers’. Now if Yao’s Yellow can indeed be considered the king, then Wei’s Purple is the queen.”
We have specimens of Wei’s Purple and Yao’s Yellow in our collection at Cricket Hill Garden. It is truly astonishing to think that the flowers we are mesmerized by each spring are the exact clones of those which Ouyang xiu wrote about 1000 years ago. Beautiful as these two very famous varieties are, we have decided not to sell or propagate them because they have proven to be a bit fickle and slow growing. We and our customers have found better success in growing more recently developed, better performing cultivars.
For instance, ‘Yao’s Yellow’ is in reality nowhere near the color depicted in this painting. In actuality it is a pale yellow which quickly fades to white. It is also slow and rather meager in its flowers. Collectors seeking a true yellow tree peony for their garden will have more success in one of the American hybrids like Age of Gold.
‘Number One Scholar’s Red‘ is named for the zhuang yuan, or highest honor in the Chinese Imperial civil service examination. For members of the gentry class of ancient China, attainment of this most exalted rank was the ultimate demonstration of mental acuity and moral rectitude. The 12th century chronicler of peonies Lu Yu speculated that this already old variety had acquired it’s named either because “it transcends all other flowers” or because “under the old system, the top candidate in the imperial examination was awarded a madder-plant colored robe and so this flower was named because of that color.”
We do sell a number of classical varieties of Chinese tree peonies including Number One Scholars Red. Other heirloom varieties are Luoyang Red, Black Dragon Holds a Splendid Flower, Twin Beauty, Phoenix White, Gold Sand in a Black Ocean and Capital Red. We have found these varieties to do very well as garden specimens.
Many of the varieties in this series of paintings appear to have fallen out of production since we have never seen them for sale anywhere. We can only wonder what they really looked like…….
We have not been able to translate the names of these last three tree peonies. A little assistance from some of the China scholars among the blog’s readers would be greatly appreciated!