Thank you for tuning in to our program “Ancient Chinese Pastimes”.
You may have heard of the ‘tulipmania’ in 16th-century Netherlands, when tulips became an expensive and highly-sought after luxury item. It is said that the price of a single bulb could cost as much as the yearly income of a skilled artisan.
But, did you know that a similar craze for peonies happened in the Tang dynasty?
Today, we have invited three distinguished speakers to our panel. They will reveal just how willingly the Tang dynasty folks splurged on a premium sprig of peonies.
First, let us invite our very first speaker, Lady Yang, de facto first lady of Tang Xuanzong’s regime. Let us give her a big round of applause!
Moderator: “I have heard so much about you, and it is such an honour to meet you in person.
My lady, in Li Bai’s poem “A Tune of Peaceful Joy: A Spring Morning in the Palace”, you engaged in a contest of “a hundred grasses” in exchange for a bet of costly jewels. Can you explain to us what “the contest of a hundred grasses” means?”
Lady Yang: “The “Contest of a Hundred Grasses” is a game popular among our people. Participants are required to gather as many plants as they can. The person who collects the largest variety is declared the winner. This game can be made even more challenging by requiring the participants to correctly name their collection.”
Moderator: “If that is the case, you have to be knowledgeable in natural history to win.”
Lady Yang, “Indeed. There is another variant of the game. Participants intertwine the stem of their plants, and try to pull them apart. The one whose stem doesn’t break is declared the winner. Naturally, the toughness of the stems is an important consideration while selecting your plants.”
Moderator, “What other leisure activities do you carry out with flowers other than these contests?”
Lady Yang, “We Tang dynasty folks love to admire flowers. Some take great pains to enhance the experience. For example, my cousin, Yang Guozhong, went to the extent of constructing a costly pavilion with agarwood for the sole purpose of admiring flowers. He even smeared the walls with frankincense and musk. You can imagine just how lovely it smelled with mingled with the fragrance of peonies in full bloom. Then, he would invite important guests to admire the peonies when they bloomed.”
Moderator, “If that’s so, flower admiration must be a costly activity exclusive to the ultra-rich like your cousin.”
Lady Yang, “Of course, there are less costly ways to go about it. For example, the ladies of Chang’an would organise excursions to the countryside. If they were to chance upon a beautiful flower, they’d host picnics on the spot, using their skirts as a screen. Another option is to admire flowers planted in official gardens or temples on days when they are open to the public.”
Moderator, “Thank you, Lady Yang, for your delightful snippets of information. Now, we must not forget the flower farmers who made this culture of flower admiration and contests possible. Let us welcome our next speaker, Mr. Guo. He is renowned in Chang’an for his ability to cultivate beautiful peonies. Let’s give him a big hand!”
“Mr. Guo, your peonies are prized by the citizens of Chang’an. Do you mind sharing the tricks you use to cultivate peonies successfully?”
Mr. Guo, “Peonies are delicate by nature and cannot be exposed to harsh weather. It is advisable to grow them in enclosures. During the early stages of cultivation, you have to be careful with them — as if you were raising little children. After that, you must let them be and allow them to grow as nature dictates. Do not try to hasten results. Some farmers intervene too much with their plants; they’d scrape and shake the stems just to ensure their plants are alive and have well-formed roots. How can you expect your plants to flourish if you disturb them in that manner? It’s just like raising children… (several passages omitted)
Moderator, “You tend to your flowers with such love and care. Are you able to get a good price for them?”
Mr. Guo, “Of course. Cultivating the plants is a challenge of its own; but you also have to ensure that the flowers are not damaged when transported from the farms to the flower markets of Chang’an. As before, you have to construct enclosures, water them constantly, and pack their roots with soil. Then the flowers can be sold for a good price.”
Moderator, “How much do you usually sell them for?”
Mr. Guo, “(Grins sheepishly) I prefer to not disclose. All I can say is, a good spray of flowers is worth as much as the yearly taxes of ten middle-income family.”
Before the moderator could speak, the third panelist could no longer contain himself.
Moderator, “Please remain seated, Mr. Sima. There’s opportunity for you to speak later.”
Sima Za, “(Ignores the moderator) You turn your backs on crop cultivation and convert farms into flower gardens. If you do not plant crops, what are the people supposed to eat? Peonies are no substitute for sorghum and wheat!”
Mr. Guo, “Supply comes with demand. It is no fault of ours — you should criticise the aristocrats who use peonies as a means to flaunt their status.”
(Lady Yang looks uneasy)
Moderator, “Mr. Sima, you are known for your poem “The Flower Sellers”. In it, you criticise the flower farmers for planting flowers instead of crops for profit. Can you briefly describe just how obsessed your people were with peonies?”
Sima Za, “As mentioned, peonies were sold at inflated prices. Apart from that, the entire capital would be jam-packed with horses and carts during peony season. There’d be a huge crowd at monasteries with peonies — very much like how your influencers flock to instagrammable spots. And of course, there are those who’d build costly structures just for the sake of admiring peonies.” (Glances at Lady Yang)
Moderator, “Thank you for your time. Before we end our session, is there anything else you’d like to add?”
Sima Za, “Spend in moderation and do not follow trends blindly!”
Moderator, “That is all for today. A big thank you to all three panelists. Our “Ancient Chinese Pastimes” series has come to an end for now. Next, we will celebrate two traditional festivals. Our programme will be updated accordingly. Thank you for your support!”
Comments: Lady Yang and Sima Za were actual historical figures. However, I invented the character of Mr. Guo as a stand-in for the flower farmers of the Tang dynasty. His image is loosely based on an essay by Liu Zongyuan, “Guo Tuotuo the Farmer”. The essay mentions that Guo Tuotuo is an excellent farmer but does not mention peonies exclusively. The bits about “scraping and shaking the stems” are inspired by the essay.
The prices of the peonies are taken from BaiJuyi’s poem, “Buying Flowers”. In it, he also provides another reference for the prices of the peonies — 25 rolls of fabric. According to estimates, this is roughly equivalent to 50,000 RMB in today’s value.