My dissertation examines how the trope of the peony as a symbol of China was developed differently by Chinese and Korean writers, based on their own purposes, with a focus on the flower's masculine and feminine traits, and the influence this imagined gender had on the literature of the two countries.
The peony today is informally treated as a national symbol by the Chinese people, but I argue that the modern Chinese have placed too much emphasis on what had been, at least until the Tang Dynasty, a minor aspect of the peony's protean imagery. This overemphasis on Chinese identity overshadowed other significant tropes of the flower, such as the enchantress image and the profligacy of the aristocracy.
The second half of my dissertation discusses the introduction of the peony into Korea and its subsequent literary adaptations. In the historical account of Queen Soˇndoˇok the flower was described as an imperial gift from China. This account was a source for the story of the flower king in “Hwawang kye,” which Korean scholars assume was written by Soˇl Ch'ong, a Silla Confucian. However, based on the problematic textual history, textual analysis, and comparison with Chinese literature, this assumption is likely to be inaccurate. I have argued that the story was revised to a critical degree by later Koryoˇ writers such as Kim Pusik, in particular, to reflect their own politics and Confucian morality.
In my analysis, I pay special attention to the peony's change of gender from feminine to masculine, specifically as “King Peony,” when it was represented in Korean literature. First, it is natural that a flower originating in China would be imagined as male, because China was held in the highest regard as a moral and political authority by Korean politicians. Second, the flower was sent by a Chinese ruler, later reputedly believed to be Emperor Taizong, a very yang figure, and the flower thereby was re-envisioned as male. However, Korean writers appropriated the flower's masculinity and Chineseness for their own purposes. Accounts of the peony gift were created to show the perspicacity of Queen Soˇndoˇk, who astutely understood and dealt with the Chinese male ruler's sexual insult. The story of the flower kingdom introduces King Peony as coming from a foreign land, i.e., China, but for the purpose of giving moral suasion to the Korean king, Sinmun, he is portrayed as a gullible and vulnerable figure, who nearly succumbs to seduction by Lady Rose. Evidently, the critical agency of Korean writers plays a key role in the making of the stories of the peony.