Vegder's Blog

May 10, 2009

Oshidori 鴛鴦 Mandarin Ducks

Mandarin ducks – the Aix galericulata of Linnaeus (1758)

Connubial bliss by Snowyowls

Connubial bliss by Snowyowls

Anyone familiar with mandarin ducks knows that they are monogamy’s ideal. The perfect couple. They get along swimmingly. In fact, for centuries they have been the model in China and Japan for all married creatures – human and otherwise. They even had religious significance, but not always for the reasons you would expect.

They have been portrayed in paintings, prints, the theater – Nō and Kabuki – poetry and prose.  They set a moral standard which rarely can been reached. “They are ever thoughtful of each other, always gentle and kindly in their manners, never noisy and quarrelsome, but quiet and peaceful.” (Animal Motifs in Asian Art by Katherine M. Ball)

Tachibana Akemi (橘曙覧: 1812-68), one of the greatest poets of the late Edo period summed it up;

My sweetheart and I,
Sleepy face side by side,
Look out at the pond
Covered with snow and watch
The mandarin ducks floating..

While both are beautiful in their way the male, the drake, outshines the female stupendously.

The Drake by 3268zauber

The Drake by 3268zauber

“They also manifest the utmost indifference to hardships and, being winter birds, remaining after other fowl have migrated to a warmer clime, they cling to each other unheedful of wind or weather.” (Katherine Ball) Several Japanese print artists have portrayed oshidori in winter: Hokusai, Hiroshige, Hasui, Shoson and others. The one below is a detail from a Hasui print.

What's a little cold weather when you're in love?

What’s a little cold weather when you’re in love?

Buddhism and the ducks: “In a series of such tales known to the Japanese as Buddha’s Ohmu Kyō, there is one which relates that a pair of these birds prophesied the coming of the Lord. Hence, as a child, Gautama always had two of them as playmates. From this intimacy he became so impressed with their virtues that, in his later life, he wrote about them his famous psalm of twenty-three pages which is known to the Japanese as Zōho-zokio. Again, it is said in preaching he constantly referred to them, particularly speaking of one which had been extraordinarily thoughtful of its blind mate..”

This next part was  added on May 14, 2011. “Another legend states that Amida Buddha frequently assumed the form of the oshidori to teach mankind the lessons of kindness and consideration.” (K. Ball)

In the Fuji no hitoana sōshi (富士の人穴草子) which describes a journey led by a bodhisattva through the six realms from Hell to the Pure Land Paradise which lies beyond them there is one description which deals with oshidori.

Radiating a brilliant light, Amida Buddha was awesome to behold. Around
the lake, the wonderful cries of ducks, geese, and male and female mandarin
ducks rose up from among the waves. Golden flags fluttered in the merciful
breeze, and twenty-five bodhisattvas played music and danced for joy. Flowers
rained from the sky, beyond the heart to fathom or words to explain.

That quote comes from an article by R. Keller Kimbrough. He follows it with a footnote which makes the role of the ducks even more explicit. “According to the Visualization Sutra (Kanmuryōjukyō 観無量寿経), Pure Land ducks, geese, andmale and female mandarin ducks (fugan ennō 鳧鴈鴛鴦) all expound the Dharma.”

Murasaki Shikibu and other poets and their use of the mandarin duck metaphor

After Lady Murasaki joined the Imperial Court she found that she had to be especially careful about what she said or wrote and to whom she said or wrote it. Her sense of isolation was especially keen and wistfully hoped for someone she could confide in. In her diary she wrote: “I long for Lady Dainagon with whom I spent every night before the Queen, when we told each other all our heart’s secrets – is it already my worldly heart that longs for a companion other than Buddha?

Like two wild ducks
Floating with unrestful slumber,
Yet even those nights I would recall –
Feathers wet and cold –
But colder tears!

Later Dainagon returned this answer:

Midnight sleep was broken
But no friend to brush away the cold tears!
I envy the Oshidori which has ever its mate by its side.

This was from a 1920 translation by Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi. In 1996 Richard Browning translated Lady Dainagon’s answer as:

Awakening to find no friend to brush away the frost,
The mandarin duck longs for her mate at night.

In a footnote Browning wrote: “Mandarin ducks were supposed always to go around in inseparable pairs. This common metaphor for lovers originally came from Chinese literature but had by this time become firmly part of the Japanese poetic vocabulary. These poems should be seen as forming a conventional exchange between close friends – nothing more.”

Donald Keene in his Seeds in the Heart writes about Ikkyū Sōjun (一休宗純: 1394-1481), a famous Zen priest: “Even schoolchildren in Japan know the name of Ikkyū-san, a mischievous, lovable priest about whom many anecdotes are related. Most of these anecdotes have little or no basis in fact, but that does not matter: Ikkyū has come to embody all the most endearing aspects of Zen priests.” (p. 1078) Later Keene wrote that when Ikkyū was 76 years old he met a blind, female singer named Mori (森?) who was 36 years his junior. “By the next year she had moved to Ikkyū’s temple to live with him. [He] wrote some twenty poems about Mori, all of them affecting… [and here is one of them]:

Blind Mori every night accompanies my songs;
Deep under the covers mandarin ducks whisper anew.
Her mouth promises Miroku’s dawn of deliverance,
Her dwelling is the full spring of the ancient Buddhas.

Miroku is the Japanese name for the Buddha of the Future, Maitreya (弥勒菩薩). In a footnote elsewhere in Seeds in the Heart Keene makes reference to an oshidori in a love letter written by an owl  or fukoru (梟) to a bullfinch or uso (鷽). (p. 1125)

William and Helen McCullough translated a particularly poignant poem from the early 11th century. Below is a part of it which only a heartless brute could read without feeling a great sense of compassion for its author.

A pool of tears
Ever beneath your pillow
As you lament your bitter fate,
No longer wishing to live –
Like a mandarin duck,
Parted from its mate,
That all through the night
Shakes frost from its plumage
And sits exhausted,
Locked in a sheet of ice,
Scarce knowing whence it came.

As object d’art

When it comes to objet d’art you can’t beat the Japanese. From the most sumptuously elegant to the simplest forms the Japanese craftsmen were masters of their universe. It is almost as though it is in their genetic code. Netsuke, an art of miniature carving, casting, tooling, etc., is pronounced ‘net-ski’ somewhat like ‘jet ski’, but not really. Below are three examples from two different museum collections. Two are from the Los Angeles County Museum and one is from the Victoria and Albert. But first, for those of you who don’t know what a netsuke (根付) is… here is a basic idea as defined in the Japanese-English Dictionary of Japanese Culture by Kojima and Crane:

…a toggle for attaching things to a sash; a small ornament, formerly used as an accessory on a man’s
sash for hanging personal things. It was fitted with a cord for fastening a purse, tobacco pouch, writing
kit, etc., to the sash. It was in itself an art object, of elaborately carved ivory, wood, stone, metal, etc.
To wear a netsuke was a vogue among the commoners, as it was the only luxury they could indulge in
freely in the latter part of the Edo period (1603-1868) when attire was strictly regulated according to
status. Netsuke came to be regarded as good luck charms as well. The designs depict a variety of subjects
associated with the culture of the Edo period.

The first one, unsigned and dating from the 19th century, is pure simplicity. Carved from ivory and stained with ink and red pigment it screams out to be held in the palm of one’s hand. Words like ‘adorable’ and ‘charming’ don’t begin to describe its magic. At 1 9/16″ high it is monumental in a miniaturized scale.

The second one, also from the LACMA, is made of gilded bronze from the early 19th century and stands just 1 15/16″ high.

The third one, made by Matsuda Sukenaga (松田亮長: 1810-71) is from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is simplicity itself and would be the dream of every contemporary American folk carver today except it was carved by a Japanese master about 150 years ago give or take a decade or two. Like the others it is on the small size coming in at only 1.4″ tall. The curatorial files note that the small size of wood carvings in Japan can often make the identification of the type of wood difficult. However, this example “…can be identified as yew, a soft wood that was particularly used for its colour. Whereas the outer layer is creamy white, the centre is yellow to brown, with additional veining providing an attractive contrast. In Hida province yew was often worked in the relatively simple ittobori technique (‘carving with a single knife-stroke’). This technique used simple, broad carving strokes instead of the more usual complex and intricate type of carving, and became a speciality of the region. This netsuke was produced in this way and is signed by the originator of the technique, Sukenaga.”

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Nō theater and the oshidori

In the Nō play, Motomezuka (求塚) or The Sought-for Grave, there is a twist on what we normally think of mandarin ducks. Of course, they aren’t oshidori at all, but rather are agents of hell. A Buddhist priest and his companion going looking for the grave of a girl, Unai, whose soul cannot rest because she had committed suicide over the frustration of two suitors fighting over her. The  priest inquires about the grave’s location of three young woman who are gathering herbs in a marsh, but they do not answer. After two of them leave the remaining one says she will lead them to the grave. “While the two priests recite a sutra, the spirit of the maiden appears and tells them how she longs for the human world and how much she appreciates their prayers. She is barely finished speaking when she is attacked by creatures from hell. Her two suitors have become fiery demons, and a pair of mandarin ducks have been transformed into ferocious iron birds with steel beaks and claws that pick at her brain. She cannot run forward because an ocean blocks her way, and she cannot run back because flames stand in her path. The maiden’s body is charred as she is forced to embrace a burning pillar. When the flames disappear she confesses her sins and describes the burning inferno, the Eighth Great Hell, where she must endure unspeakable pain and suffering. As she is telling them about her tribulations, darkness suddenly falls, and she disappears into the grass by the grave.” (Currents in Japanese Culture: Translations and Transformations) So much for cute little ducks.

Ah, but a little digging usually resolves new questions. It turns out that during the competition between the two suitors they shot arrows at each other which both went astray striking a handsome oshidori. Actually it may have only been the one duck, the drake, which attacked her. At least that is how Barry Jackman’s translation of the play reads in Twenty Plays of the Nō Theatre. Hence, we gain a greater sense of why the hellish oshidori transformed itself and tormented Unai’s pitiful soul and body.

Kabuki representations

I wish I could tell you more about oshidori roles in kabuki, but  so far I can’t. I know there were a number of plays where actors performed in costumes meant to evoke the spirit of a mandarin duck, but that’s it. When or if more information becomes available it will appear here. At least, what I can do for you is give you two examples of woodblock prints from the second half of the 18th century. The first is from the collection at Harvard and represents Nakamura Matsue as the ‘Spirit of the Mandarin Duck’ or Oshidori no seirei. It was drawn by Torii Kiyomitsu in ca. 1760-64. The second example is by Katsukawa Shunshō from ca. 1775. It represents Segawa Kikunojo III as the “…Spirit of a Mandarin Duck (Oshidori), Disguised as Tagasode, in the Play Hana-Zumo Genji Hiki…” from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

©The Art Institute of Chicago

Chikamatsu and The Lovers Pond in Settsu Province

Chikamatsu Monzaemon (近松門左衛門: 1653-1724), like all educated Japanese, was thoroughly steeped in the oshidori imagery. In 1721 he wrote The Lovers’ Pond in Settsu Province about a wholly imaginary place filled with a complex set of characters and events. One especially tragic figure is Lady Yoshiteru who is callously dumped by her husband, the Ashikaga shogun, for another woman. Does this sound familiar? It should. Ostensibly set in the mid-1500s this totally dissolute ruler might as well be any one of a number of contemporary American politicians – and you know who I mean. There are plenty to chose from. Anyway, Lady Yoshiteru’s lament is translated here by C. Andrew Gerstle: “Lost from my husband, I am like a mandarin duck bereft of its mate, ashamed to go on living, suffering in this floating world, but I live on for the sake of my son.”

A beautiful photo of a Mandarin duck posted at commons.wikimedia by Michael Gäbler.

The Chinese and the oshidori

In Japan a devoted couple or love birds are oshidori fufu (鴛鴦夫婦). In China young lovers can be called “mandarin ducks in the dew.”

One of the late 19th – early 20th c. genres or sub-genres of Chinese literature has been called “mandarin duck and butterfly fiction.” Some critics call it middlebrow, others might feel that is too generous. This new genre “…was pioneered by Wu Jianren (aka Wu Woyao, 1866-1910)…. Wu’s 1906 novella, Henhai (The Sea of Regret), and Lin Shu’s classical Chinese rendition of La dame aux camélias (1899) became the founding texts of a popular style of romance known as Mandarin Duck and Butterfly fiction…. Xu Zhenya’s (1889-1937) best selling Yu li hun (Jade pear spirit, 1914) marked the high point of butterfly romance…” (Revolution of the Heart by Haiyan Lee, 2007, p. 4)

“The earliest recorded female playwright [in China] whose work has been preserved is Yeh Hsiao-wan (1613-1660?). Her mother… was the niece of… a well-known female poet.” Her sister’s were also poets. “Yeh Hsiao-wan [葉小紈 – in Chinese] wrote ‘Yüan-yang meng’ (A Dream of Mandarin Ducks), [her only play], a four-act [‘variety drama’], in memory of her two sisters who died at a very early age [in 1632]. The play describes how three female servants of goddesses are sent down to earth to be reborn as men after they have sworn brotherhood. After rebirth… [they] become sworn brothers again, but two of them soon die.” The third one is enlightened by a Taoist sage “…as to the impermanence of  all earthly phenomenon, and eventually all three return to heaven to resume their original identities.” This is from The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, p. 839. The Yüan-yang meng is 鴛鴦夢 in Chinese. Several bits of information supplied in the brackets above are from The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, Vol. 1 by William H. Nienhauser.

Li Yü (Ch. 李煜: 937-78), the last emperor of the Southern T’ang dynasty, wrote poetry in his last years after he was captured by the Sung dynasty in 975. In the Anthology of Chinese Literature: Volume I: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century there is a poem by Li Yü entitled Strangers in a Saint’s Coif:

In Paradise Palace, a T’ien-t’ai beauty
Is taking a nap in Painted Hall
And no one talks.
She moves her pillow.
Black shines her hair as black bird’s feathers.
From her flowered dress one senses strange perfumes.

As I tiptoe up, a pearl jewel moves
And she wakes from a dream of mandarin ducks.
On her serious face a small smile gathers:
We watch each other in endless love.

Dreaming of mandarin ducks – Many beauties – and a hell-of-a-lot of non-beauties – at the time of the Sung dynasty dreamt their dreams while resting their heads on Cizhou ceramic pillows. (When I studied it years ago it was Tz’u-chou.) As I recall, this is the longest existing pottery works anywhere in the world and its greatest innovations and artistic productions came during the Sung (960-1279) and Yuan (1206–1368) periods. Below are two examples of Cizhou ware from the collection of the British Museum. The first is a pillow decorated with a dancing bear from the Sung times. The second is a plaque showing two mandarin ducks. Maybe this was what  “…a T’ien-t’ai beauty…” was dreaming of when “…she wakes from a dream of mandarin ducks.

© Trustees of the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum

One thing I need to point out before you read any further is that I have played fast and loose here with my knowledge of art history. A beauty who lived in a palace would only have placed her drowsy head upon a ceramic pillow from a more upscale factory. Cizhou was not an imperial ware. No matter how well designed or produced the use of Cizhou items was never de rigueur for the aristocratic elite. I suppose an analogy could be found in the original market for Japanese woodblock prints in the 18th and 19th century. Mainly it was the lower or merchant class which avidly sought out these somewhat garish images. The upper classes collected paintings. Almost every age has its snobs – even the ancient Chinese.

Bai Chü-i (Ch. 白居易: 772-846 – also known under the name Po Chü-yi, Po Chü-i and Bai Ju-ji) wrote one of China’s most famous poems, A Song of Unending Sorrow. It deals with the tragic, politically dangerous,  love-obsessed passion of an emperor for one of his concubines.  Mandarin ducks are mentioned – in passing, to some degree – but clearly refer to the heartache the Emperor felt. Here are two pertinent lines:

And the River of Stars grow sharp in the sky, just before dawn,
And the porcelain mandarin-ducks on the roof grow thick with morning frost…

In another translation the mandarin ducks are referred to as “The lovebird tiles”. For more information about this famous love affair go to our entry on Yang Gui-fei on our page at

There seem to be an innumerable number of poetical references to mandarin ducks in Chinese literature, but I will only offer you one more with this excerpt from Alone in Her Beauty by Tu Fu (Ch. 杜甫: 712-70):

And when morning-glories furl at night
And mandarin-ducks lie side by side.
All he can see is the smile of the new love
While the old love weeps unheard…

The geography of the oshidori

According to an expert on oshidori they like to nest at Lake Ashi or Ashinoko (芦ノ湖) and can you blame them?

Ashinoko あしのこ by Kentagon

For some time it has been illegal to hunt or kill these birds. However, that didn’t stop Sonjō, the main character in the story Oshidori as related by Lafcadio Hearn. One day after failing to find any food Sonjō kills the drake, but fails to kill its mate. That night after dinner  Sonjō slept fitfully. In his dream a beautiful woman came to him and kept asking why he had killed him. “…we were so happy together and you killed him…” She repeated mournfully. She told the hunter that her mates death meant that she would die too and prophesied that he would see this come true. The next day when Sonjō reached the scene of his crime the female spotted him and instead of fleeing she swam directly toward him and “…with her beak, she suddenly tore open her body…” and died before his eyes.

How appropriate: Duck paddle boats.

The photo above is by Max Braun posted at

Other miscellaneous and/or goofy information or thoughts on the oshidori

Somewhere I read that when the Swede Carl Peter Thunberg (カール.ペーター.トゥーンベリ: 1743-1828) visited Japan he recorded that mandarin ducks were not uncommon, that they were unafraid of humans and didn’t even react when they heard gun shots. The same could not be said about them today. I wonder about this information – especially the part about gun shots.

While searching for more material on oshidori I accidentally ran across a recipe for duck cooked with mandarin oranges. I assure I wasn’t looking for it. Naturally this seemed a bit ironic to me. Elsewhere I had read an old account that said that oshidori did not make for good eating. Maybe that was the bias of the author who felt that cooking either member of this famously devoted pair would be like eating Bambi or his mother. And sure as shootin’ there is  someone out there who would tell you that oshidori actually taste like chicken – but what doesn’t? Anyway, as I said, this marriage on the Internet of the terms mandarin and duck seemed genuinely ironic to me after spending hours, even days, researching these birds. And… of course, this raised new and totally unrelated questions which I will try to address below – if I have time. But first… Here is a picture of a Peking duck hanging out to dry and a picture of a mandarin orange just hanging out.

The image of the drying Peking duck shown above was posted at by FotoosVanRobin and the shot of the mandarin orange is from Shu Suehiro at

The word mandarin is not of Chinese origin. It has its source in Sanskrit where the word man meant ‘think’. The Sanskrit mantrin is the word for counsellor and is related to mantra, to counsel. These are distant cousins to the English word ‘mind’. But now back to mandarin: It morphed from the Hindi word mantrī into the Malay mēteri into the Portuguese mandarin.  So, where did we get the name for the fruit? Its color and loose skin reminded someone – I haven’t a clue who – of the robes worn by certain Chinese officials. Why those adorable ducks got that name is clearly beyond my ability to research such things.

Years ago I went camping for a couple of months exploring parts of the world I had never seen. Eventually, as part of that trip, I visited Victoria, B.C. for the first time. When I decided to return to the U.S. I took an early morning ferry ride from there to Port Angeles, Washington. It was dawn and I was about the only person standing on the prow – it was a bit cold and windy – and I kept spotting things in the water which I initially thought were just flotsam. As we got closer I came to realize that they were actually groups of swimming ducks. I can’t prove this but I would swear that whoever was steering that ferry would aim directly toward them. Naturally I expected them to swim or fly away, but instead as we got to a point where we were almost right on top of them they dove below the water. My urge was to run to the back of the ship to see if there were a bunch of feathers in the wake, but I didn’t. The first chance I got to call my best friend back in Missouri I told him what had happened and he said “What do expect? Why do you think they call them ducks?” I thought that was hysterical and still do… and then I found this. It turns out my friend was more right than he could have ever known. He was just being sarcastic, but as it turns out the Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto says: “A duck is a bird that ‘ducks’ – as simple as that.” It came into Old English from “…a prehistoric West Germanic verb…” that meant ‘to dive’. By the time it got to the British Isles it was a noun and didn’t come into use as a verb again meaning ‘to duck’ until the 14th century. Not only that but English seems to be the only language which calls ducks ducks.

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at


  1. This is so interesting! I love ‘Oshidori’ by Hearn, a.k.a Koizumi Yakumo.

    Comment by Meg — January 12, 2010 @ 8:43 pm | Reply

  2. As someone who has traveled in Japan with faculty colleagues and students, I am fascinated by this article and the entire blog. I am a music professor but also a composer and would like to set the Oshidori text by Tachibana Akemi (at the top of the page) for voice and piano. Ideally, I would like to set it both in this English translation and in Japanese (transliterated as Roman letters).

    Joan O. Epstein, Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, FL

    Comment by Joan O. Epstein — August 18, 2012 @ 6:37 am | Reply

  3. This is an absolutely wonderful page! — and I should know, I’m a Duck, involved in a very oshidori relationship with another duck. Kansha shimasu!

    Comment by C Sweet — January 18, 2013 @ 11:38 am | Reply

  4. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by A Print a Day – Hiroshige’s Mandarin Ducks | Toshidama Japanese Prints — April 27, 2016 @ 10:24 am | Reply

  5. […] jepang, mereka dijuluki oshidori yang artinya bisa diterjemahkan sebagai pasangan kekasih atau sepasang kekasih yang […]

    Pingback by Mandarin Duck | Informasi, Deskripsi + Harga Terbaru | — July 29, 2022 @ 7:26 pm | Reply

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