Peony Kings Day: The Meaning and Symbolism of Peonies

Peonies have captivated people for centuries with their lush, full blooms and rich history. These iconic flowers have taken on many symbolic meanings across different cultures throughout the ages. Their associations with healing, honor, romance, and prosperity give peonies a powerful symbolism that continues to endure today.

A Royal History

With their regal appearance and fragrant scent, it’s no wonder peonies are strongly linked to royalty. Often called the “king of flowers,” peonies have been revered in many ancient cultures and closely tied to nobility.

The Flower of Emperors and Kings

In China, peonies have been esteemed flowers for over a thousand years. They were first cultivated during the Tang Dynasty (618 AD – 907 AD) and were grown extensively in the imperial gardens. The bloom quickly became associated with wealth and honor and was fittingly named the “flower of riches and honor” as well as the “flower of spring.” Only the noble class and royals were permitted to grow peonies. Over the centuries, peonies became closely associated with Chinese royalty.

Red peonies in particular symbolize prosperity in China. It is said that the more vibrant the red color, the more prosperous the year will be. Peonies were also believed to contain healing properties and were commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine practices. Roots, seeds and flower buds were gathered for various treatments.

A Mythical Past

According to Greek mythology, the physician of the gods was named Paeon or Paean, and he obtained his healing skills from the tutelage of Aesculapius, the god of medicine. The peony is named after Paeon, due to its history of medicinal use.

There are also many Chinese myths and legends surrounding the origin of the peony. In one story, an imperial concubine named Fragrant Maiden fell in love with the peony and was so captivated by its beauty that she spent days just gazing at the flowers, forgetting her imperial duties. This angered the gods, who then transformed her into a peony as punishment for her obsession.

Another legend tells of a young girl named Du Liniang who took her own life after falling in love with a man she could not be with. She was later reincarnated as a spirit and while passing a peony bush, Du Liniang became captivated by their fragrance and decided to take shelter under the flowers. Her spirit became one with the peonies.

These mythical stories reveal how the peony has long been associated with beauty, femininity and nobility, even from ancient times. The bloom represented the height of splendor and riches.

Peonies and Weddings

As symbols of bashfulness, prosperity, and good fortune, peonies have become one of the most popular wedding flowers in China. They are often featured prominently in bridal bouquets, centerpieces and ceremony decor. The lush, full blooms represent the richness and prosperity that newlyweds hope to gain in marriage.

Bashfulness and Feminine Beauty

In Chinese culture, the peony is strongly associated with womanhood and is seen as a symbol of feminine beauty and grace. The bloom’s soft, delicate petals and tendency to drop shyly downward is thought to represent a maiden’s bashfulness.

In fact, the Chinese name for peony is 牡丹 (mǔ dān) which translates to “male energy and female charm,” representing the balance between masculine and feminine beauty. Peonies are sometimes called 花王 (huā wáng) or “flower kings” in Chinese, denoting their regal splendor.

A Happy Union

During weddings, peonies symbolize compassion and are thought to bring good fortune and a happy marriage. Bouquets containing peonies express the bride’s hope for a favorable union and luck in starting a family.

The flowers also represent honor. Decorating the wedding with peonies is considered an honor to the guests and shows respect. No matter their color, peonies convey best wishes to the bride and groom for a joyful and successful marriage filled with wealth and children.

The Legend of Sweet Du Liniang

There is also a touching Chinese legend about a daughter named Du Liniang whose spirit transformed into a peony. On her wedding day, the petals of the peony fell off one by one as she realized she could never experience the happiness of marriage and children.

Brides today include peonies in their bouquet to remember Du Liniang’s plight, honoring her memory so that they can enjoy the marital bliss that she could not. It is now thought of as good luck for petals to fall from peonies on a wedding day.

Peony Meanings Around the World

While peonies have the strongest symbolism in Chinese culture, they also have unique meanings in other places around the world.

Healing and Protection in Western Culture

In Western cultures, peonies have traditionally been seen as having healing properties and have been used in herbal medicine. Related to this medicinal use, peonies are known as a symbol of healing. They represent healing of both the body and emotions.

The meaning of protection is also associated with peonies in the West. It was believed that hanging peony flowers over the entryways to homes could guard against evil spirits and negative energy.

Peonies also represent good health, prosperity and wellbeing. Their lush blooms and medicinal properties have given them an enduring connection to healing.

Honor and Bravery

In the language of flowers, peonies hold the meaning of honor and respect. The flowers express honor to the recipient and convey the sender’s deep respect.

This honorable symbolism translates over to Eastern cultures as well. In Japan, for example, the peony is called the kara-mi-botan and is significant in celebrating Samurai warriors. The flowers represent bravery, honor and masculinity.

Bashfulness and Compassion

Similar to Chinese culture, the peony also represents bashfulness, compassion and sympathy in Western flower meanings. The dropping flowers and flushing hues are thought to indicate shyness.

Peonies have a strong yet kind energy to them. Their soft, lush blooms evoke a sense of tenderness and sympathy. Compassion is a defining quality of the flowers.

Romance and Femininity

As symbols of beauty and romance, peonies are commonly given in courtship. They express romantic love and affection much like roses. However, peonies convey the meaning in a softer, more bashful way.

The lush blooms also represent femininity. Peonies are associated with girls and women and have an air of gentleness about them. They are symbols of female beauty and fill spaces with a feminine aura.

Peonies in Shakespeare and Feng Shui

Beyond just their romantic and regal past, peonies have made their way into literature, art and design over the centuries. Their cultural significance and elegant beauty made them a favorite subject for artists and writers.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare famously wrote about peonies in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream to represent romance and marriage.

In Act I, Scene I, Oberon speaks to Puck of a time he witnessed Cupid sneaking through a bush of sweet “wanton wild peonies” to find his lover Psyche sleeping on a bed of flowers.

The peonies represent the height of romance and passion here, emphasized by their soft and wild nature. They are so beautiful even Cupid, the god of desire, is drawn to them as he seeks out his true love.

Feng Shui Decoration

In feng shui design, peonies are thought to bring good fortune, prosperity and healing energy. They represent wealth and honor when used in home decor.

Red peonies in particular lend their prosperous symbolism, especially if placed facing the direction of the family’s breadwinner. Pink peonies attract romance and love. White peonies purify spaces and clear negative energy.

No matter their color, peonies attract positivity and wealth. Arranging a vase full of peonies or displaying peony artwork in the home is an easy way to invite good feng shui energy.

The Fleeting Peony Season

One reason why peonies hold such symbolism around luxury and nobility is due to their very short, seasonal bloom time. The flowers only last for about two weeks, usually blooming in May or June.

The Exceptional Beauty of Peonies

Part of the mystique around peonies is their fleeting nature. Gardeners must act fast to enjoy their lush blooms before the flowers drop. This gives them an air of exclusivity and enhances their beauty even more.

The time period when peonies bloom is known as “peony season,” and it is exceptionally beautiful. Visitors flock to parks and gardens around the world to catch a glimpse of peonies in their prime. Photographers rush to capture images of the short-lived flowers.

Rarity Raises Value

Beyond just visual beauty, the fleeting nature of peonies also impacts their value. In China, peony flowers and roots are harvested as medicine, often sold for a premium when supplies are short.

Peony blooms also become more precious and ‘show-worthy’ for flower competitions during this peak season. Aficionados compete to display the most exceptional flower.

For events like weddings, peonies are reserved far in advance since florists know supplies are limited. Their rarity makes them more exclusive.

Peony Festivals

Many cities around the world celebrate the arrival of peony season with annual peony festivals. These showcase thousands of peonies while the flowers are at their peak and allow visitors to observe them up close.

Some of the most famous festivals occur in Luoyang, China where the bloom originated. The Luoyang Peony Festival spans multiple weeks and draws over 300,000 visitors each year. It honors the city’s history as a major peony grower for Chinese royalty.

Other popular festivals happen in Japan, Alaska, Oregon, and many more places worldwide. The events offer food, entertainment and activities that all celebrate the beauty of peonies.

Peony Meanings in Different Colors

While all peonies symbolize honor, prosperity, romance, and healing to some degree, specific colors give the flowers additional symbolic meaning:

White Peonies

White peonies represent purity, humility, and innocence. They convey pure intentions and have an aura of freshness. In Japan, white peonies represent wealth and status.

Pink Peonies

With their soft pink hues, these peonies represent romance, prosperity, and good fortune. They have a distinctly feminine aura. Pink peonies are said to attract love and positive energy.

Red Peonies

Vibrant red peonies symbolize passion, bravery, and prosperity. They represent honor and are said to ward off evil. Red peonies strongly signify good fortune.

Yellow Peonies

Yellow peonies are exceptionally rare and represent honor and wealth. They convey respect and esteem for the recipient. In Eastern cultures, they represent wisdom and intellect.

Purple Peonies

Purple peonies signify honor and celebrate big achievements. They represent admiration and are given as a sign of respect.

Peonies in Chinese Art and Poetry

Peonies and peony symbolism play heavily in traditional Chinese art and literature. The imperial families and noble class had leisure time to appreciate peony beauty and used various art forms to capture it.

Symbol of Wealth in Paintings

During the Qing Dynasty in particular (1644-1912 AD), peonies became a popular subject matter for painters. Depicting lush red peonies was thought to represent good fortune and convey a sense of nobility.

In palace flower paintings, peonies were always featured as the centerpiece, with other flowers like lotus and orchids complementing them. This signified the peony’s place as “king of the flowers.”

Metaphors in Poetry

Chinese poets like Li Bai (701-762), Du Fu (712-770), and others featured the peony extensively in their verse. The bloom was used as a metaphor for beauty and valor. Comparing a maiden’s face to a peony meant she had exceptional grace and charm.

The peony’s association with prosperity led poets to use it as a metaphor for living a good life with moral character. As an imperial symbol, it represented a noble spirit.

The Historic Peony King Day Festival

Among the many celebrations honoring the peony throughout history, the traditional Peony King Day stands out as one of the most significant in China. Taking place on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month, it combined flower symbolism, culture, and ritual.

Origins of the Festival

Peony King Day began in the Tang Dynasty with the imperial family and nobility observing the holiday. It started as “Prime Peony Day,” where emperors honored the peony as the unofficial “king” of all flowers.

The day merged with traditional folk customs celebrating the peony’s medicinal value. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the holiday evolved into Peony King Day for all classes to enjoy.

A Day of Reverence and Merriment

The holiday was seen as an important day to pay reverence to the peony while appreciating its beauty and healing properties. People woke early to visit peony gardens and view the flowers in full bloom.

Young girls wore peony flowers in their hair as talismans of beauty and good fortune. People exchanged peony roots and seeds to share their health benefits.

At night, celebrants drank peony root wine and wore peony flower garlands to ward off evil spirits and illness. Poetry competitions, theater performances, and other lively entertainment closed out the day.

Decline and Revival

Observance of Peony King Day began declining during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) but was revived during the Qing Dynasty. It remains an important holiday in China today, especially in Luoyang where peony cultivation started.

Annual festivities in Luoyang span nearly a month. The city also hosts a Peony Culture Festival highlighting art, dance, exhibitions, and more to honor the peony’s rich cultural history in China.

Enduring Symbols of Beauty and Nobility

From Chinese palaces to Western weddings and art, peonies have carried important symbolic meanings about honor, prosperity, romance, healing, and nobility throughout history. Their lush blooms and regal bearing give peonies an unrivaled grace and mystique that continues to endure.

Though fleeting in nature, peony flowers manage to make an everlasting impact during their short seasons. Their unique blossoms fill spaces with color, fragrance and meaning that give people inspiration and hope for the future.

No matter the culture, peonies remain icons of femininity, love, and the pinnacle of floral beauty. They are tied to rich legends and invoke daydreams of faraway lands. As spring arrives each year, peonies remind us to embrace the fleeting moments and find meaning in nature’s exquisite richness.