Birds of Cultured Splendour
Peacock groups made in cloisonné enamel are rare, although this medium is perfectly suited to the depiction of these magnificent birds with their glistening multi-coloured plumage. This is a particularly beautiful peacock group, in which the proud male peacock is shown standing on the highest point of an elaborate rock formation. This device allows his glorious tail to cascade downwards and be shown in all its brilliance. The smaller female (peahen) stands on a lower rock, and although she does not have the male’s elaborate tail, she is nevertheless depicted with shimmering blue and green feathers and a gilded crest on her head. In the Book of Changes (I Ching) the peacock is described as a cultured bird with nine virtues. It is believed to have a dignified appearance and a clear voice, it walks with grace, is punctual, is restrained in its appetite, is contented, is loyal to its fellows, is moral, and has the ability to learn from its mistakes. In China, therefore, peacocks have become symbols of culture and enlightenment. The depiction of a peacock in art often suggests the phrase tianxia wenming ‘May the world be enlightened’.
Peacocks have long been admired for their spectacular beauty and in many cultures legends have grown up concerning the origin of peacocks and their symbolism. In China, as early as the Han dynasty peacocks are found in literature, such as the well-known yuefu called ‘A Pair of Peacocks Southeast Fly, which tells a tale of the unwavering devotion between a couple torn apart by their families. It is possible that the current pair of peacocks may indeed have been created in reference to this devotion. By the Tang dynasty peacocks were well known in China, and indeed some districts paid tribute in peacocks, their feathers being used both for imperial decoration, and for the designation of official rank. Later, in the Ming dynasty, the peacock became established as the insignia of civil officials of the third rank. However, as early as the Tang dynasty, peacock feathers were apparently bestowed on both civil and military officials as marks of imperial favour, rewarding faithful service. In the Qing dynasty imperial fans were made of peacock feathers, and the wearing of a peacock feather with a coral knob on an official hat was restricted to officials of the first rank.
In Buddhism, the peacock is particularly associated with the Bodhisattva Avolokitesvara (Guanyin). One of the stories relating to the Chinese Guanyin tells of Guanyin summoning a large bird with dull plumage, sweeping her hands across her own face and then over the feathers of the bird. The bird was suffused with brilliant lights and colours, to the extent that other creatures had to look away. When they looked back they saw that each of the bird’s 100 tail feathers contained an eye. Guanyin explained this by saying that, as she was unable to be omnipresent in watching over them, the eyes in the peacock’s tail would keep watch for her and remind them of her constant care.
The green peafowl Pavo muticus is found today in Southeast Asia and north-eastern India, Tibet, and the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan. Indeed the city of Jinghong, which is the capital of the Xishuangbanna Dai Nationality Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan province used to be known as Jingyong, the ‘City of Peacocks’. From there peacock feathers were sent to the court as tribute, and men of this area were famous for their peacock dances. This tribute in peacocks, as well as his pleasure in watching the birds when he was at leisure, was noted by the Qianlong Emperor in his inscription on an anonymous scroll painting, dated to 1758, in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, entitled Emperor Qianlong watching the Peacock in its Pride, although he specifies that these birds were sent as tribute by foreign envoys (Illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum 14 Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 192-5, no. 42). This painting shows the emperor observing two male peacocks in the gardens of the Yuanmingyuan, and the emperor further notes in his inscription that after five years of nurture the birds had learned to fan their tails. Undoubtedly the emperor sought not only to reference the tribute paid by foreign nations, and to expound his appreciation of the peacock’s beauty, but also to draw attention to his own culture and enlightenment through association with these magnificent birds. This latter message may also have been in the mind of the patron who commissioned the current beautiful cloisonné peacock group.
International Academic Director Asian Art