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Love for life: the mandarin duck

A bright-coloured mohawk, green forehead, orange sideburns, purple collar and perching toes: not your idea of a dream date? The mandarin duck could make you reconsider!

Sofie Taes (odpre se v novem oknu) (KU Leuven / Photoconsortium)

Apart from being considered among the most beautiful bird species in the world, this native of China - sometimes called ‘The Far East Rainbow’ or ‘the Yin-Yang duck’ - is also believed to be the most faithful.

For centuries, mandarin duck pairs were thought to stay together for life. Yet in reality the Aix galericulata is more capricious than that, pairing for the season yet moving on to a new partner in autumn.

Still, in Asian culture, the mandarin ducks remain the prime symbol of love, fidelity and fertility.

When it comes to making a dashing impression, the drake mandarin outshines his female companion.

He’s the one making all the noise - females don’t tend to quack - and carrying thick white eyeliner as well as a train of elongated orange feathers. His partner is happy to compensate with a more discrete pallet, boasting spotted wings in greys and browns. In summer, however, the drake moults and sheds his colourful attire, leaving only his bright beak as an identifier.

With its flamboyant looks, the mandarin duck has been a favourite of artists for centuries. Unfortunately, it has also attracted the attention of bird collectors, who - often illegally - obtained and kept them far away from their natural habitat.

As early as the 18th century, mandarin ducks were imported into the United Kingdom because of their exotic appeal. From the 1930s onwards, escaped animals started breeding in Europe.

Curious about mandarin ducks near you? The BirdLife International webpage allows you to trace the worldwide population.

The most important symbol of love, devotion and romance in Asian culture, the mandarin duck is the pendant of lovebirds, doves and swans in the West.

Wedding ceremonies, family traditions and house decoration would not be complete without references to the striking pair.

The origins of this symbolism are rooted in several legends, one of which tells of a man who considered divorcing his wife. Just before telling her, he went for a walk and saw a couple of mandarin ducks reminding him of happier times. This made him reconsider his divorce and the ducks were henceforth regarded as love charms.

A more tragic story recounts the ill fate of gardener Yuan who saved Ying, the daughter of his wealthy employer, from a pond. His employers, however, regarded this not as a heroic act but as an intrusion, and Yuan was imprisoned. After a visit by Ying, who brought him a colourful robe, her father had Yuan thrown into the pond. Ying chose to join him. Later, a pair of mandarin ducks was seen by the water, the male bright and colourfulcolorful like the robe given by Ying. They were thought to be a metamorphosis of the unlucky couple that nevertheless would spend their lives together.

Yuan and Ying continue to be remembered in the term used for mandarin ducks (Yuan Yang or 鸳鸯), which is also a colloquial expression for an ‘odd couple’ or ‘unlikely pair’.

Representations of mandarin ducks permeate a wide range of Asian art forms, but are also featured on objects for everyday use, including bed sheets, pillowcases, cups and saucers, and furniture. They remain popular gifts in China at the occasion of weddings, for instance as figurines made in porcelain, jade or wood.

Often, a lotus is featured as well, either as a basis for sitting ducks or as an ornament on its bill or back. The flower adds to the ducks’ symbolic power, as it is considered auspicious and stands for purity and harmony. Lotus seeds, moreover, represent wishes for a couple to have a numerous family.

The couple receiving a duck-themed present is believed to be blessed with a life full of love, marital bliss and plentiful offspring. Mandarin ducks are also given to singles to aid in their search for love, or used by married couples to reinvigorate their relationship.

Despite their talisman qualities, mandarin ducks should be handled with care: according to feng shui principles, strict conditions are to be observed when it comes to positioning duck-related items in your house.

Looking for love? Then place the ducks next to your bed. To give your marriage a boost, put them on the husband’s night table. What not to do: get one instead of a pair, confine duck depictions to an ill-lit area, or display them inside of a wooden frame.

For all its amorous symbolism, not every duck is made to fit the mould.

That certainly goes for the drake (nicknamed ‘Mandarin Patinkin’ or ‘the Hot Duck’), observed in New York Central Park for about four months in late 2018 and early 2019. After having been featured in The New York Times, the People's Daily, and in reports on BBC and CNN, he suddenly disappeared.

His heartbroken fans ('the quackarazzi') wildly speculated as to the possibly tragic fate of their beloved bird. Yet the answer might be as simple as 'fatigue', suggests his most fervent Twitter-supporter: 'My best guess was that he flew far enough north to a small pond remote from people.'

Sometimes it takes a strange bird to show that going solo is perfectly fine.

This blog post is a part of the PAGODE project, which explores Chinese cultural heritage in Europe.

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