The tale was first told by the Chinese poet Tao Yuanming (365?–427), himself a notorious recluse, in the early fifth century. This was a time of exceptional social disruption, when armies raged across huge swaths of the Asian continent, displacing (and massacring) entire populations on an unprecedented scale. Instability was rampant, and governments rose and fell in a matter of years, sometimes even months.
Tao presents the story as historical fact, starting off his account by stating that it happened during the previous reign period (326–397), when a fisherman reported a fantastic event to the local government office in Wuling (in the contemporary southern province of Hunan). He had been floating on a stream in his boat, and suddenly he came across a valley entirely filled with blossoming peach trees. He followed the valley to a hill, where he found a small cave. Squeezing himself through the opening, he emerged into a sunny land filled with fields and small farms. The people he encountered there marveled at his arrival, but welcomed him into their homes. They told him that their ancestors had come to this place to escape the political upheaval caused by the first Emperor of China, who reigned from 221–210BC, nearly five hundred years earlier. Since then, they had no contact with anyone in the outside world.
Eventually, the fisherman decided to return home. The people pleaded with him to keep their secret, but nevertheless he marked the way back to them, through the cave and along the valley of peach trees, and went straight to the Wuling officials. A team was sent to investigate, but when the fisherman tried to retrace his steps, he became lost and finally had to give up. A few other hardy adventurers set out to find the place in the ensuing years, but they all died without success.
The story of this elusive paradise so perfectly captured the sense of longing for an idyllic escape from the troubled world that characterized Tao Yuanming’s age (and many other ages since), that it inspired countless writers and artists. The Peach Blossom Spring is one of the most ubiquitous themes in Chinese (and Japanese and Korean) art and literature. HoMA has numerous paintings of it, among which one of my favorites is by the renowned late-Ming-dynasty artist Lan Ying (1585–1664). Lan himself lived in turbulent times that saw the decline and ultimate collapse of Ming rule, and a drawn-out invasion by the Manchus that went on for years before they finally consolidated control. His choice of subject for was undoubtedly informed by this background, adding subtones of loss, poignancy and even menace (feelings we all can relate to right now) to the otherwise bucolic scene.
Curator of Asian Art
April 3, 2020
Lan Ying (1585–1664)
The Peach Blossom Spring
China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), 17th century
Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell Hutchinson, 1990