The Lady and the Peonies

折花行(절화행) – 이규보 (李奎報)


牡丹含露眞珠顆 (목단함로진주과)

美人折得窓前過 (미인절득창전과)

含笑問檀郞 (함소문단랑)

花强妾貌强 (화강첩모강)


檀郞故相戱 (단랑고상희)

强道花枝好 (강도화지호)


美人妬花勝 (미인투화승)

踏破花枝道 (답파화지도)

花若勝於妾 (화약승어첩)

今宵花同宿 (금소화동숙)


In this lighthearted banter depicted in another poem credited to Yi Kyu-Bo (1168-1241), a beautiful lady passes by a window looking out to peonies adorned with pearl-like dew drops. With a sweet smile, she asks her husband which is prettier: she or the flowers? Intent on teasing her, her husband proclaims that the peonies are lovelier. In a huff, the lady stomps on the flowers and declares, “Since the flowers are prettier than me, thou shalt sleep with them tonight!”

Perhaps a testament to the popularity of the saccharine scene portrayed, variations of the exchange can be found in Chinese poetry. In one version by Song dynasty writer Zhang Xian (990-1078), which predated Lee’s work, the wording was largely identical but the ending had the wife quipping, “Can the flowers possibly hold a conversation with you?” Flamboyant Ming dynasty poet, Tang Bohu (1470-1524), however, did not sound so sure:

妒花歌 – 唐寅

昨夜海棠初着雨,数朵轻盈娇欲语。 佳人晓起出兰房,折来对镜比红妆。 问郎花好奴颜好 ,郎道不如花窈窕。 佳人见语发娇嗔,不信死花胜活人。 将花揉碎掷郎前,请郎今夜伴花眠。

Translation: Freshly showered with rain the night before, the delicate begonias appear as if they are longing to speak. A beauty wakes up from her room and plucks some to compare with herself in the mirror. She asks her husband to choose the fairer one between her and the begonias. He, in reply, remarks that she pales in comparison to the blossoms. Miffed, the lady retorts that dead flowers cannot plausibly hold a candle to a living person. She crushes the begonias, throws them to her husband and teases him, “Well, then, sleep with them tonight.”

Still, Tang was merely deploying the literary devices of similes and personification. Neither he nor his counterparts in the other eras or lands truly considered any of the flowers potential conversation partners or bed companions. In recent times though, Dutch artist Theo Jansen and science writer Ferris Jabr might have held a different view. Jansen thought of the mobile giant contraptions he fashioned out of plastic tubes, wood and sails as alive even though they were propelled by wind and had no mind of their own or any semblance of reproduction ability. Jabr, in partial defense of Jansen, argued that life is not an intractable reality, but rather, an idea conjured up by Man as a (often) useful division of things. In the sociology of science, we term this phenomenon as “framing” and assert that, far from being absolute truths, many scientific concepts depend on the criteria employed for their definitions and implicit values influencing the selection of these criteria. It follows then that there may be many more valid ways of perceiving the actual world than those we are used to. Thus, we can envisage the blooms whispering to a lover without moving a lip or saying an actual word, and snuggling with him in spite of their inability to offer a physical embrace.

For all we know, some among us may attest that the peonies were tittering at the romantic exchange. Literally.


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