Research Report

Tracing and Etymological Study on Peony and Mudan  

Xuanjun Fang
Institute of Life Science, Jiyang College of Zhejiang A&F University, Zhuji, 311800; Hainan Institute of Tropical Agricultural Resources, Sanya, 311800, China
Author    Correspondence author
International Journal of Horticulture, 2023, Vol. 13, No. 5   doi: 10.5376/ijh.2023.13.0005
Received: 03 Apr., 2023    Accepted: 11 Apr., 2023    Published: 21 Apr., 2023
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This is an open access article published under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Preferred citation for this article:

Fang X.J., 2023, Tracing and etymological study on peony and Mudan, International Journal of Horticulture, 13(5): 1-5 (doi: 10.5376/ijh.2023.13.0005)


Peony and Mudan both originated in China. Mudan came after peony, which has been recognized by the academic community and internationally. However, where did peony and Mudan come from and where did they distribute, and what are the similarities and differences between them? There has always been controversy, and there is also a lack of historical documents to support it. This study attempts to clarify and study previous existence of Peony and Mudan and their relationship with Chinese civilization from the perspective of natural history and etymology. This study shows that peony was widely planted or picked in the Spring and Autumn Period 2400 years ago; 2000 years ago in the Han Dynasty, Mudan had been differentiated from peony and evolved into an independent variety. 1400 years ago in the Tang Dynasty, Peony and Mudan were clearly distinguished, especially in the middle and late Tang Dynasty (7th century AD).

Peony (Paeonia lactiflora Pall.); Mudan (Paeonia×suffruticosa Andr.); Etymology; Natural history; Traceability

Peony (Paeonia lactiflora Pall.), also known as herbaceous peony, is an herbaceous plant, while Mudan (Paeonia×suffruticosa Andr.), known as wood peony in ancient times, is a woody plant. Together with plum blossom, orchid, chrysanthemum and lotus, they are known as the six famous flowers in ancient China. They, unique to China, are traditional and precious, and they have a history of natural growth and artificial cultivation for thousands of years. The records of peony can be traced back to the Shī Jīng(Classic of Poetry) 2400 years ago, and Mudan can be traced back to the early Eastern Han Dynasty.


In fact, in the earliest times, the ancients did not distinguish between Mudan and peony, and they were collectively called sháoyào. It was not until the emperor Liú Xiù of the Eastern Han Dynasty gave the name “Hàn Mǔdan” that Mǔdan gradually replaced the name “wood peony” and spread throughout the world. It was not until the Tang Dynasty that these two were clearly distinguished. The origin of peony and Mudan is explained in Běncǎo Gāngmù (Compendium of Materia Medica) by Lǐ Shízhēn.


Peony, the goddess of flowers in May, is the prime minister (in feudal China) of flowers; Mudan, beautiful and fragrant, is the king of flowers. These two are not only of great appreciation value, but also of remarkable medicinal value. Therefore, Mudan and peony have been favored by Chinese people since ancient times. They have not only created many artistic forms such as poems, stories, novels, garden design, but also left many documentary records in the fields of folklore, materia medica and so on.


However, after thousands of years of accumulation, the literature on Mudan and peony is complicated, resulting in information flooding and overload, which is not conducive to the textual research for future generations. From the perspective of natural history and etymology, this study clarifies and verifies the origin and evolution of Mudan and peony according to the information of Chinese historical documents, which is conducive to people’s in-depth understanding of the evolutionary history of Mudan and peony.


1 Tracing the Literature Records of Peony and Mudan

1.1 Peony can be traced back to 2400 years ago

Peony has been recorded in Guófēng · Zhēnwěi in Shī Jīng (Classic of Poetry). The original text in ancient Chinese is as follows: Zhēn yǔ wěi, fāng huànhuàn xī. Shì yǔ nǚ, fāng bǐngjiān xī. Nǚ yuē guān hū? Shì yuē jì cú, qiě wǎng guān hū! Wěi zhī wài, xúnxū qiě lè. Wéi shì yǔ nǚ, yīqí xiāngxuè, zèngzhī yǐ sháoyào. 


Zhēn yǔ wěi, liú qí qīng yǐ. Shì yǔ nǚ, yīn qí yíng yǐ. Nǚ yuē guān hū? Shì yuē jì cú, qiě wǎng guān hū! Wěi zhī wài, xúnxū qiě lè. Wéi shì yǔ nǚ, yīqí jiāngxuè, zèngzhī yǐ sháoyào.


Translated into modern Chinese, it roughly means that: The Zhēnshuǐ river and Wěishuǐ river are long and flow far away. Men and women travel outside the city, holding grass for luck. The woman asks shall we go and have a look? The man answers I have gone there but why not go again! The other side of the Wěishuǐ river is a good place. It’s lively and spacious. The man and woman stroll together in pairs, joking with each other and giving a peony for not forgetting each other.


The Zhēnshuǐ river and Wěishuǐ river are long and clear. Men and women travel outside the city, with crowded sightseers. The woman asks shall we go and have a look? The man answers I have gone there but why not go again! The other side of the Wěishuǐ river is a good place. It’s lively and spacious. The man and woman stroll together in pairs, joking with each other and giving a peony for long-time happiness.


Zhēnshuǐ and Wěishuǐ mentioned in the poem are the names of two rivers in the ancient state of Zhèng, and Sháoyào is “Peony”.


Shī Jīng (Classic of Poetry) is the beginning of ancient Chinese poetry and the earliest collection of poems, which collected poems from the early Western Zhou Dynasty to the middle of the Spring and Autumn period (from the 11th century B.C. to the 6th century B.C.). It is generally believed that the works in Shī Jīng (Classic of Poetry) were produced after Shang (1066 B.C.) being destroyed by Emperor Zhōu Wǔwáng of Zhou Dynasty, while the ancient state of Zhèng was a vassal state surnamed Jī in the Zhou Dynasty, starting in 806 B.C. and ending in 375 B.C. Therefore, it can be inferred that Chinese people have known peony for 2400 to 3000 years.


1.2 Mudan can be traced back to 1400 years ago

The name “Mǔdan” is believed to have appeared in the Han Dynasty. Bóxiāngxiàn Zhì (The Record of Bóxiāng County) in 1932 records that Liú Xiù, the first emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty, hid among the peonies in the Mítuó Temple to escape the army of Wáng Lǎng, a general under Wáng Mǎng. After Liú Xiù declared himself emperor, he was given the name “Hàn Mǔdan”. Liú Xiù proclaimed himself emperor in A.D. 25, so it can be inferred that Liú Xiù gave the name “Hàn Mǔdan” 2000 years ago.


It is also believed that Mudan was cultivated as an ornamental plant during the Southern and Northern Dynasties. It is recorded in the book Liúbīnkè Jiāhuà Lù written by Wéi Xuàn in the Tang Dynasty: “Běiqí Yáng Zǐhuá yǒu huà Mǔdan jí fēnmíng. Zǐhuá Běiqírén, zézhī Mǔdan jiǔ yǐ” (it roughly means that: Yáng Zǐhuá of the Northern Qi Dynasty did well in painting Mudan. Yáng Zǐhuá was from the Northern Qi Dynasty, which means that Mudan have been around for a long time.”


Some records from the Tang Dynasty suggest that Mudan were widely planted in the Sui Dynasty. “Emperor Yáng of the SuiDynasty cleared more than 200 kilometers land in Xīyuàn, and called on the people to offer flowers. Yìzhōu offered more than 20 kinds of Mudan, including ‘Fēiláihóng’, ‘Yuánjiāhóng’, ‘Zuìyánhóng’, ‘Yúnhóng’, ‘Tiānwàihóng’, ‘Yīhuáng’, ‘Yán’ānhuáng’, ‘Xiānchūn hóng’, ‘Chànfēng jiāo’ and other rare varieties.” In A.D. 604, Emperor Yáng Guǎng of the Sui Dynasty established the Xīyuàn in Luòyáng, the eastern capital. The chapter of Sù Wèn in the S Z written by Wèi Zhēng and others in the Tang Dynasty said: “The fifth day after Tomb Sweeping Day, the Mudan blossoms.”


If the above records about Mudan are true, it can be inferred that the history of Mudan cultivation has been 2000 years. However, the above records are not the first hand contemporaneous documents, so they can only be used as reference, not as a conclusion.


Nevertheless, in the Tang Dynasty, there was a clear distinction between peony and Mudan, and the status of Mudan as an independent species was very clear. The Tang Dynasty was founded in A.D. 618, which has a history of more than 1400 years. From this point, Mudan can be traced back to 1400 years ago at most.


2 Etymological Study on Peony and Mudan

2.1 Name tracing of peony

Why do people call peony as “Sháoyào”? There is a record in Běncǎo Gānɡmù (Compendium of Materia Medica), written by Lǐ Shízhēn in the Ming Dynasty, that “Sháoyào, yóu chuòyuē yě. Chuòyuē, měihǎo mào. Cǐcǎo huāróng chuòyuē, gù yǐwéi míng” (it roughly means that: the shape of Sháoyào is Chuòyuē (means beautiful), and it named after this). It can be seen that the “Sháoyào” may have evolved from the sound of “Chuòyuē”. There are many aliases for peony, such as Jiānglí, Lícǎo, Lánwěichūn, Méigǔhuā, Yúróng, Hóngyào, Hēiqiānyí.


2.2 Name tracing of Mudan

Mudan and peony are similar in shape. In ancient China, they were collectively called “Sháoyào”. And Mudan was also known as “Mùsháoyào”. But why did “Mùsháoyào” be called “Mǔdan” later?


There is a record in Běncǎo Gānɡmù · Volume 14 · Cǎo No.3 (Compendium of Materia Medica · Volume 14 · Cǎo No.3), written by Lǐ Shízhēn, that “Mǔdan, yǐ sè dān zhě wéishàng, suī jiézi ér gēnshàng shēng miáo, gù wèizhī Mǔdan. Tángrén wèizhī Mùsháoyào, yǐ qí huā sì sháoyào, ér sùgàn sì mù yě. Qúnhuāpǐn zhōng, yǐ Mǔdan dìyī, sháoyào dìèr, gù shìwèi Mǔdan wéi huāwáng, sháoyào wéi huā xiàng” (it roughly means that: Mǔdan with red flowers are of high quality. Although they bear seeds, they can also produce seedlings on the roots, so they are called Mǔdan. The people in the Tang Dynasty called it Mùsháoyào (wood peony), because its flowers are like Sháoyào (peony) and its stems are like wood. Among the flowers, Mudan ranks first, followed by peony. It is said that Mudan is the king of flowers and peony is the prime minister (in feudal China)). At the same time, it also pointed out that there are many aliases for Mudan: “Mǔdan, Shìmíng, Shǔgū, Lùjiǔ, Bǎiliǎngjīn, Mùsháoyào, Huāwáng.”


2.3 English common names for Mǔdan and Sháoyào

In English and other European languages, Sháoyào is called Peony or Paeony, named after Paeon, a student of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and treatment. In Greek mythology, Asclepius was jealous of his student (Paeon), and Zeus turned Paeon into a peony to save him from Asclepius’ anger.


As for Mǔdan, like Sháoyào, was originally called Peony, also known as Tree peony or Chinese tree peony. Later, it was also called Mudan peony. Plant taxonomists believe that Mudan was an artificially bred hybrid population of ancient Chinese, not a naturally occurring species, and named it Paeonia X suffruticosa. The species name “suffruticosa” here consists of two parts. The first part, “suf-” is only a prefix; The second part is “fruticosa”, which means shrubby.


Today, in the English speaking world, Mudan has been widely accepted as the English common name of Mǔdan.


3 Textual Research on Evolutionary Nodes of Peony and Mudan

Beidi Tongshang Peony, a poem written by Hánqí of the Song Dynasty, records that “Zhèngshī yǐqǔ xiāngchóuzèng, bùjiàn zhūjīng zǎi mǔdan” (it roughly means that: Peony has been recorded in Guófēng · Zhēnwěi in Shī Jīng (Classic of Poetry), which is a token of love given by men and women in ancient times. But there is no record of Mudan). Wáng Yǔfù of the Song Dynasty mentioned in Sháoyàoshī Xù (Preface to Peony Poems) that after Empress Wǔ Zétiān of the Tang Dynasty, “Mǔdan shǐ shèng ér sháoyào zhī yàn shuāi” (it roughly means that: Mudan began to flourish, while peony gradually declined).


Shénnóng Běncǎojīng (Divine Farmers Classic of Materia Medica), one of the four classic works of traditional Chinese medicine written in the Han Dynasty, mentions that “Mǔdan wèi xīn hán, yīmíng lùjiǔ, yīmíng shǔgū, sheng shān gǔ” (it roughly means that: Peony tastes pungent and cold, also known as Lùjiǔ, Shǔgū. It was born in the valley). It can be seen that there was a saying about “Mudan” in the Han Dynasty, which was a kind of medicinal plant that was born in the valley. Therefore, it can be inferred that Mudan had not become a widely cultivated plant in the Han Dynasty.


Duàn Chéngshì, a naturalist and poet of the Tang Dynasty, who is as famous as Dù Mù, Lǐ Shāngyǐn and Wēn Tíngyún in the Tang Dynasty, mentioned in Volume 19 of the first collection of Yǒuyáng Zázǔ that “Mǔdan, qiánshǐzhōng wú shuō chù. Jiǎn suícháo Zhòngzhí Fǎ qīshíjuàn, chū bùjì Mǔdan, zézhī suícháo huāyàozhōng suǒwú yě” (it roughly means that: Mudan is not mentioned in the previous history…and Mǔdan is not mentioned in more than 70 volumes of the Zhòngzhí Fǎ (Planting Methods) of the Sui Dynasty, which indicates that there is no Mudan in the anthers of the Sui Dynasty). This also shows that there is no record of Mudan in the Sui Dynasty.


Liú Yǔxī, a poet of the Tang Dynasty, composed a poem: “Tíngqián sháoyào yāo wúgé, chíshàng fúqú jìng shǎoqíng. Wéiyǒu Mǔdan zhēn guósè, huākāi shíjié dòng jīngchéng” (it roughly means that: The peonies in front of the court are enchanting but without strength of character, and the lotus in the pond is pure but lack of sentiment. Only the Mudan is really a national beauty with its bloom shocking the capital). This poem is an example of the clear distinction between Mudan and peony in the Tang Dynasty. Liú Yǔxī was born in A.D. 772 and died in A.D. 842. During the period of middle and late of the Tang Dynasty. According to the Liú Yǔxī Quánjí Biānnián Jiàozhù (Annals and Notes of Liu Yuxi’s Complete Works) proofread by Táo Mǐn and Táo Hóngyǔ, Liú Yǔxī’s poem uses the words “Guósè” (national beauty) from the Mǔdan Shī (Peony Poems) written by Lǐ Zhèngfēng, a poet of the Tang Dynasty. It is speculated that the poem was written by the author in Chang’an from A.D. 828 to A.D. 831; Bái Jūyì and Lǚ Wēn, who were contemporaries of Liú Yǔxī, had poems on Mudan and peony respectively, which can also prove that Mudan and peony had been clearly distinguished in the Tang Dynasty.


Bái Jūyì, a great poet of the Tang Dynasty, was born in A.D. 772 and died in A.D. 846. His poem  Mǔdan Zāi (On Transplanting a Mudan) records the fact that people spend money on Mudan planting, that “Jīnqián mǎidé Mǔdan zāi, héchù cícóng biézhǔ lái. Hóngfāng kānxī háikān hèn, bǎichù yí jiāng bǎichù kāi” (it roughly means that: While planting a peony I recently bought, I wonder where it came from. The plant fills me with both affection and loathing, for it blooms no matter where it is transplanted).


Lǚ Wēn of the Tang Dynasty was born in A.D. 772 and died in A.D. 811. His poem Zhēnyuán Shísìnián Hàn Shén, Jiàn Quánmén Yí Sháoyàohuā witnessed the scene of the powerful transplanting and planting peony with flowers in April, that “Lǜyuán qīnglǒng jiàn chéngchén, jíjǐng kāiyuán rìrì xī. Sìyuè dàihuā yí sháoyào, bùzhī yōuguó shì hérén” (it roughly means that: The green ridges on the green plains are gradually becoming dust, the courtyard of a wealthy family is still expanding day by day because of the lush landscape irrigated by well water. In April many dignitaries were going to transplant the blooming peony flowers they bought from outside into the newly expanded garden. I wonder who among them took the national economy and the people's livelihood as their concern).


4 Conclusion

Based on the above literature records and analysis, we can confirm that peony and Mudan originated in China and were widely planted or picked in the Spring and Autumn Period 2400 years ago; 2000 years ago in the Han Dynasty, Mudan had been differentiated from peony and evolved into an independent variety. 1400 years ago in the Tang Dynasty, Peony and Mudan were clearly distinguished, especially in the middle and late Tang Dynasty (A.D 7th century).



Gu G.G., ed., Qing Dynasty, Shénnóng Běncǎojīng (Divine Farmer's Classic of Materia Medica), Beijing: Xueyuan Publishing House, 2002


Li S.Z., ed., Ming Dynasty, Běncǎo Gānɡmù · Volume 14 · Cǎo No.3 (Compendium of Materia Medica · Volume 14 · Cǎo No.3), Tianjin: Tianjin Science & Technology Publishing House, 2019


Li J., ed., Tang Dynasty, Sōngchuāng Zálù, Chinese Collections


Liu Y.X., ed., Tang Dynasty, Tao M., and Tao H.Y., eds., Liú Yǔxī Quánjí Biānnián Jiàozhù (Annals and Notes of Liu Yuxi’s Complete Works), Beijing: Zhonghua Book Company, 2019


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