Introduction

Searching for the Peach Blossom Spring is a large-scale oil and acrylic painting that depicts a Chinese sampan boat filled with individuals looking for a new home, even when they find themselves adrift and surrounded by the hopes and fears of an uncertain future. This work recalls a renowned Chinese fable written in 421 CE and explores the universal desire for a utopian haven to call home. While this dream may not always be fulfilled, this work seeks to recognize the difficulties, hopes, and dignity of migrants and displaced individuals.

Searching for the Peach Blossom Spring (2019-2020)
Oil and acrylic on three panels, 96″ x 48″

The Historical Story

The Peach Blossom Spring, written in 421 CE by the Chinese poet Tao Yuanming, tells a story of a lost fisherman who accidentally stumbled upon a utopian village hidden behind a forest of peach blossoms. The fisherman was warmly welcomed with food and shelter, and the villagers told him that their ancestors arrived at this place around 500 years ago in order to escape a civil war. The fisherman eventually bid them farewell in order to return to his own home. He then told many others about the existence of this peaceful haven. However, he failed to ever locate this village again, and so did the countless people who searched for it over the course of many centuries. The story of this village that disappeared has become a utopian symbol and remains one of the most influential and important stories in Chinese history and culture.

Detail of Second Panel from Searching for the Peach Blossom Spring

Detail of Third Panel from Searching for the Peach Blossom Spring

Detail #1 of First Panel from Searching for the Peach Blossom Spring

Detail #2 of First Panel from Searching for the Peach Blossom Spring

About the Painting

This painting strives to further this narrative and realize the sacrifices of those who have left familiarity behind in search of a better place for themselves and for generations to come. While feelings of endless searching and non-belonging continue to be experienced by first-generation immigrants, second-generation immigrants, refugees, minority groups, and more, the universal quest for a better society free of political unrest has existed since the beginning of civilization. 

As the northern Renaissance Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus wrote, “The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war.” Naturally, this endeavour reveals an ongoing struggle in our world as people around the globe continue to search for a better life and a safer home, even when a utopia is perhaps contradictory and nonexistent by definition.

Symbolism

The realism of the figures and abstraction of the surging surroundings come together as an investigation of a contemporary concern through oil and acrylic painting traditions. In examining how we react to social realism, the power dynamics as well as the historical and political burdens of representative imagery become apparent. Furthermore, peach blossom petals dot the tempestuous waters and serve as an ambiguous yet hopeful questioning of any utopia’s existence. Peach blossoms continue to be a symbol of peace, love, and prosperity in Chinese culture. The cormorants also recall the tradition of cormorant fishing as an ode to the fisherman in the original story, and are analogous to the symbolism of the dove as a sign of hope. 

Journey (Study for Searching for the Peach Blossom Spring)
Watercolour on Arches watercolour paper, 15” x 11”

Drawing Studies
Top Left: Migrants, Pencil on drawing paper, 24” x 18”
Top Right: Mother, Charcoal on drawing paper, 18” x 24”
Bottom Left: Boy, Charcoal on drawing paper, 18” x 24”
Bottom Right: Cormorant, Charcoal on drawing paper, 24” x 18”

Conclusion

For many Chinese, Korean, and Japanese artists, the dreamy atmosphere of this fable has been a popular choice of subject matter. However, rather than further romanticizing the imagery that exists in Tao Yuanming’s work, this painting differs in that it reflects the sublimity, nonexistence, and apprehension of such a utopia through visual terms. I hope that even those unfamiliar with Tao Yuanming’s The Peach Blossom Spring may come away from this work with a meaningful experience, especially in these times as waves of anti-migrant rhetoric and xenophobia grow stronger and continue to ripple across North America.

About the Artist

Olivia Zeng is a painter and illustrator based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her practice includes oil, acrylic, and watercolour painting, as well as drawing. Her achievements include first and second place in the Royal Canadian Legion Remembrance Day National Poster Contest and the Governor General Academic Medal.

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