The Peach, fruit of immortality
The Peach, fruit of immortality
In my «Manual of Writing Chinese Characters» (1) I hold an opinion contrary to that of most scholars of Chinese characters, and that is that the formation of the so-called picto-phonetic characters responds not only to the composition of the corresponding radical with a phonetic element, but that the choice of that phonetic element have a relationship with its meaning.
Thus we see that the character for writing peach 桃, in Chinese, is formed by the wood radical 木 and the phonetic component zhao 兆 (omen, prognosis, augury). Since that character originally designated the «cracks in the crust of a turtle exposed to fire or the action of a hot instrument (the shapes of the cracks served for divination).»(2)
There are a few other characters that are also pronounced «zhao» and that could have served to provide the phonetic component of tao-peach, but I am convinced that if zhao-prophecy was chosen, is precisely because of the religious sense that peach has for the Chinese.
Peaches, continuously present in Chinese poetry and art, evoke in this country the idea of immortality, and are, therefore, a favorite motif in paintings and handicrafts that are given as gifts for birthdays. This is because a legend states that the Queen Mother of the West, one of the most powerful deities since the Han dynasty, had a garden where the peaches of immortality bore fruit once every 3,000 years, and whoever ate them would attain immortality.
That sacredness of peaches is seen in some of the characters it forms:
– Taojian, (桃箭 peach + arrow) for example, are the arrows constructed with peach wood that were shot in any direction or simply placed over a child’s cradle, when some danger was suspected to be lurking, as peach wood was considered to be a powerful antidote to evil spirits.(3)
– Taofu (桃符 peach + amulet) designated the peach wood amulets that were hung around children’s necks, to keep demons away from them. (3)
– This same term was used both for «peach wood talismans suspended on both sides of the door to drive out evil spirits,» and «parallel phrases stuck on both sides of the door for New Year.» (2). In some regions they are called taoban (桃板 peach + boards). This sometimes makes them refer to New Year’s Day, such as «changing parallel phrases.»- 桃符换换旧 táofúhuànjiù.
– Táoliè 桃茢 was a broom made of peach wood, used to drive out demons.
– Táorén (桃人 peach + person), was a carving of a human figure made of peach wood, which was placed on the door to drive away demons.
– Taohesuo 桃核锁 – It was a type of lock that joined the two feet of the child. Vulgar people believed that in this way they can confer children longevity and protect them from bad influences.
It was also peach wood that was preferred for making children’s beds, as it was considered that they would provide them with a happy life.
Peach wood was generally considered to ward off evil spirits. During the Zhou dynasty, there was already a custom that when the king, nobles, or high officials visited their domains, they were preceded by a group of sorcerers and soothsayers, armed with peach wood and reeds, to protect them from evil spirits. (3)
Used by both Buddhists and Taoists, peach wood was often the only defense people had against evil spirits.
The ubiquitous gatekeepers that cannot be missing in any house, represent, in some regions, two brothers, Shen Shu and Yu Lu, who according to legends, lived in ancient times on Mount Tu So, under a peach tree, and were said to have power over the fleshless spirits, whom they hunted down and cast to the tigers. (4)
The action of the peach is given by being a symbol of the vernal sun, under whose influence it is full of flowers before a single leaf unfolds from its twigs, it has therefore more vitality than other trees. Because of this vitality it drives away spirits, and is related to immortality.
The vitality of the peach related to driving away devils, and the power to confer immortality, in its broadest sense, involved not only the individual, but his lineage, which made the peach a symbol also of fertility. The peach is the vitality of spring, and in fact, in China, the month of March is the month of the peach, and spring is evoked by the peach.
Thus there are numerous words referring to the appropriate time for love, sex, or marriage that use the character for «peach»
– táohuayùn (桃花运 peach + flower + luck). Meaning good luck or luck in love.
– táosè (桃色 peach + sex), meaning illicit love.
– táosè’àn 桃色案, used for crimes of passion.
– yútáo余桃, for male homosexuality.
The term that fits best with the two peach concepts present in the Chinese mentality is the festival called Pántáohuì 蟠桃会 or Flat Peach Festival (called paraguayas in English), a festival celebrated on the third day of the third lunar month in honor of the Queen Mother of the West. During it, young people gathered in the forest or on the banks of rivers, and began singing songs to get to know each other, then moving on to greater intimacy, generally ending in great ritual orgies that related the fertility of the earth with that of women.
In relation to the sexual symbolism of the peach, Eberhard (5) tells us that peaches in bloom are compared to the freshness of a young woman, and also to a woman who is easy to seduce.
The Fountain of Peach Trees also serves in Chinese to designate a paradise or utopia. This originated in a story by the writer Tao Yuanming, from the fourth century of our era, called precisely «The Story of the Fountain of Peach Trees», the Spanish version of which can be read in my book Shangrilá (6). It tells of travelers arriving at a place where absolute happiness reigns. In his work cited above, Eberhard thinks that it is already a Chinese tradition that places paradise in the lands of the ancestors of the Zhuang or Yao minority.
The religious role of the peach is evidenced in numerous ways throughout Chinese history. It cannot be accidental that it uses in its name another character (zhao), which designates the most important religious practice at the time the characters were developed.
(1) – Ceinos, Pedro – Manual de Escritura de los Caracteres Chinos. Miraguano, Madrid, 1998-2007.
(2)- Mateos, Fernando, Otegui, Miguel and Arrizabalaga, Ignacio – Diccionario español de la Lengua China. Espasa- Calpe-1977
(3)- Doré, Henry – Researches on Chinese superstitions. Shanghai, 1914
(4)- Williams, C.A.S.- Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and art motives. New York, 1976
(5)- Eberhard, Wolfram.- Chinese Symbols. New York. 1989
(6) – Ceinos Arcones, Pedro.- Shangrilá, viaje por las fronteras chino tibetanas. Madrid, 2006
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