Peacocks have long been admired for their great 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 Fly Southeast’, which tells of the unwavering devotion between a couple torn apart by their families. 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 favor, rewarding faithful service.
According to legend, the founder of the Tang dynasty was associated with peacocks. The story tells of the beautiful and talented daughter of a military commander, Dou Yi. The daughter was fond of painting and embroidering peacocks on screens, and in AD 582 it was decided that her future husband should be chosen by seeing which archer could shoot the eyes from one of the peacocks on her screen with two successive shots. The successful candidate was eventually the man who was to rule China as Tang Gaozu (AD 618-26), and so the Commander’s daughter became an empress.
By the Tang dynasty there are clearly recognizable depictions of peacocks in both religious and secular Chinese art. Peacock feathers were also sometimes used to sprinkle water on altars, and are associated with a number of Buddhist deities. The peacock is particularly associated with the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin), who enters the Chinese Buddhist pantheon in male form but comes to be represented in female form, especially in relation to the role of Goddess of Mercy. One of the stories relating to the Chinese Guanyin in female form 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.
Peacocks had significant associations with several religions, and were prized by royal houses all over Asia, not only for their symbolic importance but for their extraordinary beauty.