Chinese American artist Cathy Lu puts a spin on traditional East Asian imagery. Growing up in Miami, she developed an interest in the fruits she saw browsing Chinese market places. Through painting and sculpture, Lu weaves a narrative of cultural collision and synthesis. At the center of it is the peach bearing bloody gashes and purple bruises.
Peaches In Chinese Mythology
In traditional Chinese paintings, peaches symbolize longevity and immortality. Since they are said to be grown by the Heavenly Queen Mother, they are also gendered. Chinese mythology associates peaches with fertility and femininity. For instance, peach blossoms bloom only in the springtime. They epitomize the trope of beautiful yet short-lived women common to Chinese literature. For the fuzzy fruit, there exists a duality of vitality and vulnerability.
Girls Playing (Peach), 2013
In this watercolor piece, Lu depicts young Asian girls clambering up a giant, lesioned peach. The girls, despite appearing playful, wrestle to get to the top of the fruit. Consequently, one can interpret that the peach symbolizes the cultural expectations of women. In China, these expectations entail marrying young and remaining obedient to one’s husband. Lu’s portrayal of young girls highlights how domestic destinies are thrust upon Chinese women from an early age. Thus, Chinese culture motivates girls to compete with each other for marriage instead of exhibiting gender solidarity. In an interview with Asia Society, Lu states, “I like to show the fruits bruised and bleeding, and like the girls I paint, I’m playing with ideas of what it means to go ‘bad.’”
After Life, 2013-2015
Lu constructed this intricate fruit display with ceramic and wood. She mimics the Chinese tradition of using fruit as offerings for the dearly departed. People exchange offerings for blessings and guidance from their ancestors. However, Lu covers the peaches, melons, and pomelos in bloody wounds. I read this piece to denote the difficulty of adhering to Chinese beliefs as a trans-cultural woman. While peaches are effeminately gendered, melons and pomelos symbolize family unity. In tandem, women who do not follow cultural norms can bring shame to their families. Chinese women who aren’t married by their thirties are termed sheng nu or “leftover women.” Yet, American women tend to seek career advancement before marriage. Hence, Lu’s piece represents an incongruity between two sets of cultural values for Asian American women.
Peach Garden, 2018
Peach Garden is an installation of ceramic sculptures made by Lu over three months. The installation draws from the Chinese legend of the Immortal Peach Garden. According to ancient mythology, deities eat the peaches in the heavenly garden to obtain immortality. While the fruit sculptures are large and regal, a closer inspection shows them covered with sores. With this jarring imagery, Lu may be trying to communicate the deterioration of ancient values in Chinese modern society. The peaches are rotted as though no deity has visited the garden for a long time. In connection, Chinese modernity has led society to become more secularized. Nonetheless, the lessons from folklores still inform Chinese culture, leading to ideological dissonance. As Lu notes, “So these [Chinese] images, even if we understand them to represent a time and ideas no longer current, are still the foundation of how we understand culture and ourselves.”