The Peach Festival of the Queen Mother of the West
Fang Chunnian ca. 1225-1264)
Ming or Qing dynasty
Ink and color on silk
Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1908.170
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The Queen Mother of the West was one of the most important goddesses of the traditional Chinese pantheon. She dwelt in the Kunlun Mountains, located south of the Takla Makan desert in western China, where according to legend she was visited over the centuries by a number of emperors and Daoist masters seeking the esoteric doctrines that confer immortality. Her most famous encounter reportedly occurred in 110 B.C.E., when she journeyed to the court of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (reigned 14187 B.C.E.) and presented him with several magical peaches, which ripen only once every three thousand years. Said to confer immortality when eaten, these special peaches became the most common attribute of the Queen Mother. According to early sources, the peaches of immortality grow not only in the mountain home of the goddess, but also on certain mythological islands in the ocean east of China, where other gods and immortals reside. It is unclear which of these locations is depicted in the current scroll.
The painting shows various groups assembling to celebrate the Queen Mother's birthday. Several palace women and young boys can be seen harvesting ripe peaches at the right end of the displayed section, as an imperial figure and attendant courtiers promenade on a terrace overlooking the small grove. Other male figures appear in the doors and windows of the main palace behind them, while the more distant buildings are populated by women practicing various musical instruments for the approaching celebration. At left, another group of women has ascended a high platform to await the arrival of the goddess from the air.
This lavishly illustrated handscroll was probably produced by a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century workshop that specialized in high-end reproductions of famous works. The scroll bears a spurious signature of Fang Chunnian, who served in the imperial painting academy of the Southern Song dynasty (11271279) and was praised for his depictions of Daoist immortals and Buddhist deities in landscape settings. The Peach Festival is the best-known painting associated with his name.
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