A Peacock Flying to the Southeast

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Jiao Zhongqing and Liu Lanzhi saying good-bye

The legend A Peacock Flying to the Southeast was the work of an anonymous poet living in the Jian An period at the end of the Han Dynasty (196—219 AD). It is one of the collections of the Music Academy (yuefu) formed by the Eastern Han courts to gather literary works created largely but not exclusively by common people. Unlike a Western epic, Chinese poems of this genre, known as the "Han Yuefu songs," use vernacular language and depict mostly the average people. A typical yuefu song has regular five-syllable lines and both Mulan and A Peacock Flying to the Southeast follow this rule.

A Peacock Flying to the Southeast was a tragic love story of a young man named Jiao Zhongqing and his wife Liu Lanzhi. Although the newly weds loved each other very much, Zhongqing’s widowed and perhaps morbid mother could not stand Lanzhi coming between her and her son. Eventually she broke up the marriage. The young couple’s dream of coming together was shattered when Lanzhi’s mother and brother forced her to marry someone else. As a protest, they took their own lives, fulfilling their vow of living together in the other world.

It is alleged that the legend has its root in real life. In the Qinghuang County of Anhui Province, one can find a grave, known as the Peacock Tomb, believed to have entombed the couple. The word “peacock” comes from the first line of the poem, which is used to introduce the rest of the story, a style typical of the Han Yuefu songs. The image of "a lone peacock flying to the southeast, looking back every few miles," was used to accentuate the feelings of Jiao Zhongqing and Liu Lanzhi forced apart by their oppressive families.

Adapted into different art forms including various national and local operas, A Peacock Flying to the Southeast is well-known to the Chinese and enjoys a prominent place in Chinese literary history. Yet none of the eminent literary critics ever mentioned it in their works before the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). A possible reason may be that the theme of defying the social order was not politically right and so each monarchy tried to discourage the legend's dissemination. However, its publicity has gained momentum since the turn of the twentieth century when women began to be awakened to the cause of their emancipation from a male-oriented society.

Story retold/ translated by Haiwang Yuan, ©2004
Last updated: March 27, 2004

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