Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) Kacho-e of Mandarin Ducks (Oshidori) Swimming Among Water Grasses, Chuban. 1830’s.
This delightful print shows a pair of Oshidori, or Mandarin ducks swimming together in a swirl of contented harmony; unsurprising, as in Japanese (and Chinese, where it originated) culture, these ducks are emblematic of marital bliss. During the breeding season, they don’t flock together, preferring to pair up, not associating with other ducks; giving rise to the Japanese expression for a young couple in love – “like Mandarin ducks playing in the water” (oshidori fufu). Whether or not they mate for life, as is popularly believed, is another matter. Some pairs renew their bonds annually, some find a new partner every year.
Thanks to their reputation as emblems of constancy, the Mandarin duck appears in every area of Japanese culture – thoughtfully expanded upon by Jerry Vedger in his blogpost on Oshidori. Most notable is the 1904 story by Lafcadio Hearn, in which a hungry hunter named Sonjo kills a male Mandarin, despite the risk of bad luck befalling him. That night he dreams of a beautiful woman weeping and lamenting in his room, and so troubled is he, that he returns to the spot where he shot the drake. There, the female spots him, swims directly towards him, and “with her beak, she suddenly tore open her body” and died. Sonjo instantly became a priest.
The killing of the equally famously loyal hornbilled puffins elicits similar stories, most specifically in the tale of Uto Yasukata. In a forthcoming exhibition, Toshidama Gallery will be showing this lovely print by Hirosada of an actor as a hornbilled puffin – who could equally be a Mandarin duck. They seem to have been conflated rather as symbols of loyalty and love beyond the grave.