Peonies have been a long-standing symbol of wealth, good fortune and prosperity. With deep roots in Eastern and Western cultures alike, peony tattoos are renowned for their unique significance associated with these prosperous ideals – from the Chinese Imperial Court to the home gardens of Japan. Let’s explore this storied history further as we investigate how large Japanese tattoo designs swept into popularity.
Peony Flowers in Europe
The enchanting peony is often referred to as “the rose without thorns”. This beautiful flower has long been admired for its magnificent spreading red petals, delicately curled at the edges. It’s no wonder why it was used in Europe throughout time to represent and honor the Virgin Mary.
Ancient Greek Peony
Even from the time of the ancient Greeks, it has been associated with many positive folk medicine cures in the western world, treating ailments that range from asthma to epilepsy and even keeping evil spirits away.
The Peony Flower in the Ancient Rome
In ancient Rome, peonies were often depicted in art with their ripe seed-capsules, as it was the seeds that held medicinal properties. It was believed that great caution should be taken when harvesting the plant’s fruit to prevent a woodpecker from seeing and pecking out one’s eyes (Pliny, 23 to 79 CE).
The Peony Flower in Serbia
The beautiful red flowers of the species Paeonia peregrina are an iconic symbol in Serbian folklore. Known as Kosovo peonies, they are often seen as a symbol of remembrance for the heroes who perished in the Battle of Kosovo.
The Peony Flower in Fine Art
Peonies have been captivating audiences for centuries – with Conrad Gessner, the 16th century Swiss naturalist and French Impressionist Auguste Renoir leading the way. In 1879, Renoir painted a stunning portrait of these beloved flowers; even Giuseppe Castiglione, painter and architect to China’s Qianlong Emperor during the Qing dynasty joined in by contributing his own interpretation.
The Far East
Although often depicted in tattoo imagery in deep red, it is today also cultivated in white, varying shades of red, pink, and even yellow. But the principal association in tattoo work is not Western but rather Eastern, where the peony flower takes on a distinctly different set of meanings.
Peony Flowers in China
Peonies have a long and fascinating history in China that dates back centuries. The ancient Chinese texts make reference to the use of peonies for flavoring food, and since then, they have been used and cultivated for medicinal purposes.
In the sixth and seventh century, ornamental cultivars of the plant were created from plants that had been grown for medicinal purposes.
Even Confucius was purported to have said, “I eat nothing without its sauce. I enjoy it very much, because of its flavoring.”
The peony—a flower steeped in Chinese history and tradition—has been signifying prosperity, good fortune, honor and romance since 1903 when it was declared the national flower of the Qing dynasty. Despite numerous proposals for its adoption as China’s national emblem throughout subsequent years, this blooming symbol continues to signify timeless beauty without a formal title today.
During the Tang dynasty, these beautiful peony flowers were grown in the imperial gardens, and their cultivation spread across the country in the 10th century.
Luoyang, the capital of the Song dynasty, became known as a hub for peony culture and still hosts an annual peony exhibition and research facilities. In the Qing dynasty, Cáozhōu also developed a tradition of cultivating the peony flower, and an annual exhibition is held there as well.
The Peony Flower in Japan
Paeonia lactiflora, a flowering shrub native to China, was introduced to Japan in the 10th century.
The Edo Period
Over time, Japanese gardeners embraced their newfound plant and began to cultivate a variety of forms through both self-fertilization and crossbreeding techniques. This creative plant breeding reached its peak during the Edo period (from 1603 to 1868) through the Shōwa period (1926 to 1989).
The popularity of Paeonia lactiflora in Japan was further enhanced by its cultural connections to Confucianism (Confucius used it as a flavoring, as noted above) and Shinto.
For centuries, Shinto has been a revered religion in Japan that emphasizes the bond between humankind and nature. Originating as far back as 8th century CE with polytheistic beliefs, it continues today to be practiced by many who use its teachings of ancestor reverence and admiration for natural elements like mountains, rivers and flowers – such as those within Fukuoka’s Hakozaki Flower Garden –as a way to stay connected to their spiritual roots.
Japanese gardeners are continuing to cultivate new varieties of Paeonia lactiflora, creating some of the most beautiful flowers in the world. Through careful selection and hybridization, they have developed a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors.
Popular varieties today have petals that are deep red, pinkish-lilac, yellow-white, or even double flowering blooms. As a result, Paeonia lactiflora has become an integral part of traditional Japanese floral arrangement art known as Ikebana.
Japanese Tattoos (Finally!)
In the ornate, complex, and extensive body coverage that is typically involved in Japanese tattoos, it may seem as though entire gardens could appear. But the floral repertoire of traditional Japanese tattoo is not as extensive as it might first appear.
Wood Block Prints and Pulp Fiction
In the late 1820s, Japan was undergoing a period of significant change. The Tokugawa family had recently established their shogunate, a period of military rule that spanned several centuries. As the country adjusted to its new political landscape, its citizens also embraced a culture of urbanization and isolation.
This period has been described as the Edo Period. In it, Japan experienced a surge in art production, particularly ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints.
In the late 1700s, Japan’s government stepped in to regulate publications and artwork. Their goal was to suppress any art that glamorized aspects of the Floating World lifestyle – a culture characterized by indulgences like drinking, gambling, and prostitution.
With fewer works of this type being published, publishers instead opted to focus on works that had historic settings and plenty of action.
And it was during this time that the 14th-century Chinese novel Shuihuzhuan, or “Water Margin” became popular in Japan, where it was know as Suikoden.
This novel featured the story of a group of Robin Hood style vigilantes living on a mountain surrounded by marshland, who championed the poor and downtrodden. It quickly became a hit with readers.
In 1757 the first Japanese translation of Water Margin was published in episodic segments, and this immediately inspired other adaptations.
The novel was a massive success and captivated audiences around the world, leading to adaptations in theatre forms such as plays and Kabuki performances. Its popularity inspired further sequels and spin-offs that enthralled readers with new stories of adventure.
Through his impressive series of prints, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798 to 1861) illustrated legendary warriors in bold and daring poses. His works not only represented their physical strength but also highlighted the moral courage they embodied for the greater good.
Give Them Tattoos
Kuniyoshi’s creative genius transformed the original source material into a masterpiece of art and culture – where characters were adorned with elaborate, large-scale tattoos. His captivating illustrations left an indelible mark on Japan that continues to shape modern tattooing tradition today.
Of the 75 heroes featured in his unfinished series, 15 were depicted with a large stunning tattoo. Each colorful tattoo featured imagery from the natural world like waterfalls, lions, snakes, and octopi, as well as fantastic creatures and gods.
Kuniyoshi’s prints were so popular that they spawned an entire new genre of printmaking–musha-e or warrior prints–and made their tattooed subjects into idols for many fans.
Show Your Good Taste
During the Edo Period, tattoos in Japan began to take on a more complex form. Whereas previously, small tattoos of words or text were used to symbolize romantic or religious vows, or to brand criminals, the art of Japanese tattooing flourished during this time.
While conspicuous consumption in the form of elaborate clothes and possessions was only allowed to the upper classes, tattoos became a way for the middle and merchant classes to show their desire for art and demonstrate their good taste.
Innovative techniques and styles began to develop as artists strove to create intricate designs, often drawing inspiration from nature and traditional Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. But unlike other forms of art, tattoos could be covered by clothes.
Peonies feature in his woodblock prints, though not directly in the tattoos themselves. But alongside their rise to popularity, a particular card game featuring images of flowers also spread throughout Japan.
Hanafuda (Flower Cards)
Playing cards were first introduced to Japan from Portugal in the 1500s. But when Japan decided to isolate itself from the rest of the world in 1633, playing cards were banned.
Unfortunately for the Tokugawa shogunate, gambling had become very popular. Each time gambling with a certain deck of cards was prohibited, a new and more abstract design would be invented.
By the time tattooing had begun to spread in Japan, so had Hanafuda, the flower cards. Each of the twelves “months” or suits of cards was known by a flower(June was represented by the peony), done in bright colors.
Since the peony is part of this ancient Japanese card game (reported to have been played by gamblers sporting tattoos), it also suggests a sort of gambling daring and even a masculine devil-may-care attitude, quite unlike its character in the west.
How peony flowers became a part of Japanese tattoo designs is also the story of how tattoo designs became part of Japanese culture. At first glance, the peony tattoo may seem like yet another floral tattoo design–and in a sense it is. But this beautiful tattoo also carries with it some of the earliest records of tattooing in the East.
Frequently Asked Questions
In the West, it’s been called the “Rose Without Thorns” and used as a reference to the Virgin Mary. In the East, the peony tattoo designs mean wealth, good fortune, and a bit daring good luck.
As in the East in general, Japanese peony tattoos are symbols of prosperity, wealth, and good fortune. But going in back in time, they’re also symbols of heroism and fighting for what’s right.
Floral tattoos have meanings as varies as the flowers themselves. Each different design can have its own history as well. From love and friendship, to sacrifice and loss, floral tattoos are a world unto themselves.