Flower Power: Understanding China’s National Flower Debate
As the People’s Republic of China celebrated its 70th anniversary on Oct. 1, national imagery and patriotic pageantry — from the flag to the anthem — felt inescapable. But there was one notable absence amid the festivities: a national flower.
Over the years, the Chinese mainland’s lack of an officially designated national flower has periodically attracted the attention of policymakers, experts, and the broader public. The topic made headlines again this July when the state-run China Flower Association (CFA) set up an online poll to canvas the public for ideas. But even as early as 1982, a horticulture magazine was asking its readers to choose between the plum blossom, the peony, and the chrysanthemum. In 1994, the CFA outlined a list of three criteria for potential candidates: a history of cultivation in China, exquisite beauty, and mass appeal.
That none of these campaigns resulted in the formal selection of a national flower doesn’t imply a lack of interest in the subject. Quite the opposite, in fact: The country’s love affair with floral cultivation stretches back centuries, and has contributed to a rich literary tradition of appreciating and drawing artistic inspiration from flowers. If anything, the problem is that there are too many culturally important and popular flowers to pick just one.
The orchid, for example, is a symbol of nobility and elegance, as well as friendship. The chrysanthemum represents good fortune and longevity. And the lotus, given that it emerges unstained by the muck and mud of the rivers and lakes where it grows, has been a particular favorite for painters and poets throughout history.
But when it comes to picking a national symbol, the most commonly cited potential candidate is the peony, which would easily meet all three CFA requirements. Chinese have cultivated these flowers for more than 1,600 years, reaching a peak during the powerful Tang dynasty (618-907). Their petals are so gorgeous that Chinese call them “the king of flowers,” and of course they are beloved by the people, who associate them with wealth and good fortune.
In at least one case, the government has already used the peony as a kind of surrogate national flower. In 1988, China issued a set of stamps in honor of the 10th anniversary of a treaty of friendship with Japan. On one of the matching pairs from that set, postal officials chose the peony to appear alongside the cherry blossom — the Japanese national flower.
But the peony isn’t the only flower in the running. Its main historical rival, the plum blossom, is also a native plant with a long history and widespread popular appeal.
Indeed, the plum blossom has already been named China’s national flower — by the Republic of China government in 1928. Advocates justified the choice by citing the plum blossom’s ability to survive the winter frost and its resilient nature — both traits the Nanjing-seated government saw as symbolic of the Chinese people’s own ability to endure hardship. Plum blossom-backers also drew connections between the flower’s five petals and China’s five main nationalities: Han, Manchu, Mongol, Hui, and Tibetan. Even the plum blossom’s three pollen-producing stamens had a match in the “Three People’s Principles” of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist, government.
As for the peony, contemporary critics may have conceded their beauty, but they believed the flower too delicate to represent China in a time of crisis and too connected to the country’s imperial past for a new China.
Still, such complaints did little to dampen the peony’s popularity, and in 1988, gardening expert Chen Junyu suggested a “dual national flower” plan that would honor both the peony and the plum blossom. In 2005, Chen and 62 other experts formally submitted their idea to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, an elite policymaking body.
Not everyone was onboard, however, and the idea was eventually dropped. Opponents of the plan, including plant ecologist Li Jizan, believed that national flowers are like national flags or national anthems: A country should only ever have one of each. More importantly, some questioned whether the humble plum blossom really belonged on the same stage as the refined peony.
In fact, in terms of both popularity and cultural significance, the plum blossom qualifies as a relative late bloomer. For most of China’s history, poets and artists paid far more attention to the chrysanthemum, lotus, or hibiscus flower, to say nothing of the peony. When Cao Xueqin, author of the classic novel “Dream of the Red Chamber,” likened his female characters to different flowers, he reserved the lotus and peony for the story’s most prominent women — Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai, respectively. The plum blossom went to Li Wan, a quiet widow few would describe as a memorable character.
The 1928 decision to make the plum blossom the country’s national flower had less to do with its cultural cachet and more to do with the particular conditions of that era of national crisis. To a people faced with annihilation, the plum blossom’s proud, unyielding nature was no doubt appealing. Today, however, although the country has by no means solved all its problems, it is largely strong and self-sufficient. In this context, the wealth and good fortune the peony symbolizes may well be more in line with popular values.
The polls appear to support this. In the CFA’s July survey, the peony came in first place with almost 80% of the votes. The plum blossom finished a distant second with just 12%, trailed by the orchid, lotus, and chrysanthemum. Peonies were featured prominently at this year’s National Day fireworks show.
In short, if the People’s Republic of China were to pick a national flower in the near future, the peony would be the overwhelming favorite.
But China’s love of flowers has never been limited to a single species: It’s based on an appreciation of, and an admiration for, beauty in all its myriad forms. Peonies are romantic, orchids elegant, lotus flowers pure, and plum blossoms proud. It’s their collective beauty that gives spring its magical feel — so why not let a hundred flowers bloom?
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: “Peony Flowers and Plum Blossoms.” Wu Huiyuan and Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)