From the conquest of the Ming dynasty in 1644 by the Manchurians through the literary inquisitions of the eighteenth century, seemingly innocuous paintings of peony flowers kept alive a discourse of Ming loyalism among Chinese artists and poets. While the peony's appearance in poetic imagery was deemed seditious by the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–1795), paintings by Yun Shouping, Shitao, Hua Yan, and Jin Nong, among many others, endured a century and a half of censorship, all the while contributing to portrayals of the flower in court imagery. This study examines peony paintings by several artists active in the Jiangnan region to consider how their works demonstrated traces of dissent or used loyalist imagery to deepen social ties. It reveals how these garden subjects were made powerfully subversive after centuries of dormant conventionality, seen merely as auspicious symbols until the Qing dynasty. Their multivalent imagery allowed them to exist in multiple, conflicted contexts: north and south, literati and academic, private and public, and, in the ultimate coup, amid both loyalists and the Manchu court.

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