The symbolism of flowers and fruit in Chinese art 花朵 huā duǒ
Plate 87. From a painted Chinese bottle. Available under a Creative Commons License ➚
The symbolism of flowers in Chinese art is many and varied, and each flower has its own entry in this survey of symbols. The Chinese have kept attractive gardens from early times, and courtyard homes had a small garden at its heart. Early Spring blossom was particularly valued and decorated houses for the Spring Festival. The character for flower 花 huā has an interesting origin. As a plant ‘magically’ transform from producing green leaves into producing flowers the character uses a head over heels representation to show this metamorphosis under the radical for a ‘plant’.
The twelfth day of the second lunar month is a minor festival to celebrate Spring and the emergence of leaves and flowers. It is dedicated to the goddess of flowers 百花深 Bǎi huā shēn. For a long while it was the custom of women to wear a garland of flowers in their hair although white and blue flowers are unlucky and avoided. Flowers have long been associated with girls and young women, and a picture of a flower may represent one. A prostitute was often referred to euphemistically as a flower.
Particular flowers are often depicted with a specific bird because they have the same symbolic meaning, so a crane and a pine tree both represent longevity. The four friends of the flowers are the swallow; oriole; bee and butterfly. While the three friends of winter are the pine; bamboo and plum blossom.
A basket of flowers is the emblem of Lan Caihe 蓝采和, one of the Eight Daoist Immortals.
Each month is associated with a flower but the list varies from place to place. Here is a typical list of months that follow the traditional Chinese lunar months starting at Chinese New Year (not January):
1st: plum; 2nd: apricot; 3rd: tree peony; 4th: cherry blossom; 5th: magnolia; 6th: pomegranate; 7th:lotus; 8th:pear or quince; 9th:cassia or mallow; 10th:chrysanthemum; 11th:gardenia; 12th: poppy.
There is also a seasonal association too, the four virtuous plants 四君子 sì jūn zǐ are Spring: orchid or magnolia, Summer: peony or lotus, Autumn: chrysanthemum and Winter: plum or bamboo. These make up the four ‘flower tiles’ of the game of Mahjong.
After the flowers comes the fruit. For many of the plants in Chinese symbolism it is the fruit rather than the flowers that are portrayed in artwork. So in this section we also include such things as apples, aubergines, oranges, peaches, pomegranates and walnuts.
Here is a survey of flowers and fruit that are noted for their Chinese art symbolism:
Apple 苹果 píng guǒ
Older varieties of apple prefer a cooler, moister climate than is generally available in China, so apples used to be imported from Korea and Japan making them an exotic luxury. Wild Chinese apple trees in Northern China are Malus spectabilis 海棠 hǎi táng which does not produce sweet fruit but are admired for their blossom in spring. The similar sounding 堂 táng means ‘hall’, so a picture of apple blossom can represent the home in a painting. 玉堂 Yù táng ‘Jade Hall’ is another name for the illustrious Hanlin Academy and therefore represents a wish for scholarly achievement. The combination of apple and magnolia together gives the phrase 玉堂富贵 yù táng fù guì the meaning ‘be wealthy and honored’.
Wild apple blossom may represent female beauty, possibly from the celebrated Yang Guifei being termed the 海棠女 Hǎi táng nǚ ‘Paradise-apple maiden’ . ‘Apple’ in Chinese sounds the same as 平 píng ‘peace, calm’ so an apple is a hidden wish for peace. Together with a persimmon 柿 shì an apple wishes success in business affairs (事 shì)
Apricot 杏 xìng
Leaf from the Album "Dreaming of Traveling while in Bed (卧游)". Ink and color on paper, 27.8 x 37.3 cm, Palace Museum, Beijing. Available under a Creative Commons License ➚
Apricots represent the second month of the traditional calendar as that is when they are in flower. Apricots and the closely related almond represent female elegance, perhaps because the large seed is ovoid shaped like the eyes of an Oriental beauty. A red apricot represents a woman having an affair. Sometimes an apricot is painted together with Imperial women to express the wish for fortitude in sorrows. All parts of the apricot tree are widely used in medicine.
A field of apricots can represent wish for success in examinations as celebrations traditionally took place in an apricot grove.
Aubergine 茄子 qié zi
The eggplant or aubergine is used to symbolize an official because of the shape of the attachment to the stem looks like the hat of an official. More crudely its overall shape may bring to mind the penis.
Because qié zi sounds a bit like ‘cheese’ it is used in China to encourage people to smile while taking a photograph.
Azalea 杜鹃花 dù juān huā
Some wild azaleas have a red blotch on the flower which has led to them being called ‘cuckoo flowers’ in Sichuan because the local cuckoo has a red throat. In Europe, the cuckoo flower ➚ is a completely different species (Cardamine pratensis) that flowers at the time that cuckoos arrive from Africa. Azalea stamens have been collected and used as a mild narcotic. Whole mountains are covered with azaleas in China making them a magnificent sight when in flower. It often symbolizes female beauty in painting; in association with butterflies, azaleas suggest creative ability in art.
Bamboo 竹 zhú
“Bamboo under Spring Rain” by Xia Chang, 1388-1470. Philadelphia Museum of Art ➚
Image for Google Art Project ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚
Bamboo is such an important plant in China that we have written an extended section all about it. Bamboo is used for every conceivable purpose from scaffolding to food and firecrackers to paper. Bamboo in art symbolizes longevity and steadfastness as it is both long lived and evergreen. As an evergreen it is, together with pines and plums, regarded as one of the three friends of winter. The bamboo stem (culm) is hollow and its leaves droop so it represents modesty: (虚 xū means both modest and hollow). Along the stem are the joints 节 jié which also means ‘festival’ and ‘moral integrity’. It's straight, un-branched habit exemplifies virtue and honesty. It is supple, graceful and very useful – making it a suitable paragon of virtue for both Confucians and Daoists.
The character for laughter uses the radical for bamboo suggested by the rocking and rustling of bamboo. Bamboo explodes, noisily, when burnt and so was originally used as for the casing of fire crackers 爆竹 bào zhú ‘exploding bamboo’. Bamboo is also one of the ‘suits’ in the game of Mahjong. The character to express good wishes 祝 zhù sounds similar and so bamboo in decoration expresses a wish for peace and happiness. Together with plums it may represent husband and wife in a painting. Because it is such an quintessential motif in China, some painters have dedicated their lives to painting nothing except bamboo.
Basket 篮子 lán zi
A basket of fruit symbolizes the Chinese Daoist immortal Lan Caihe. Lan Caihe is portrayed as a woman or an hermaphrodite and plays heavenly music. The basket symbolizes riches and is popular as a wish for good luck at the Spring Festival.
Bean 豆 dòu
A slice of bean curd on a traditional ceramic spoon.
Beans are a major source of protein for the many vegetarians in China. The beans are processed into bean curd 豆腐花 dòu fǔ huā or 豆花 dòu huā – it is from Japan that we tend to use the name ‘tofu’. ‘Dou’ sounds similar to 到 dào 'to attain; to arrive' so it sometimes has that symbolic meaning. The dried beans mixed with water make a milk-like liquid : soy milk 豆浆, dòu jiāng and this is then left to coagulate into soft bean curd blocks. “Eating bean curd” is sometimes used as a euphemism for making love.
Bottle Gourd 葫芦 húlú
The large, tough fruit of the plant ‘Lagenaria siceraria’, when dried and hollowed out makes a water-tight container. This cheap and useful gourd was used as a water container from ancient times in China (especially southern China where the plant grows best). It often forms as a 'double' gourd - the shape has a distinct waist between upper and lower bulges. It has also been used as a buoyancy aid for children. It was often forced to grow into a shape to form a suitable container in which to keep a cricket as a pet. It formed an emblematic feature of the wandering Daoist adept who would use it to store his magic potions. Hù 护 sounds the same and means ‘protect’ while 祜 hù means ‘blessing’. In legend, a Daoist master could be trapped in a gourd and later emerge just like the story of the genie and the magic lamp. By association a picture of a gourd fends off evil influences.
The gourds are often painted, usually with flowers and leaves to match the organic shape of the gourd. A gourd is associated with one of the Eight Immortals Li Tie Guai 李铁拐 with wisps of white smoke emanating from the gourd indicating the magic potion it contains. In a picture large 瓜 guā and small gourds 瓞 dié together with 蔓 màn ‘creeper’ (sounding like 万 wàn ‘numerous’) represent a wish for many descendents 瓜瓞绵绵
Cabbage 菜 cài
Vase with cabbage and butterflies, China, Qing dynasty, 19th century, nephrite, Honolulu Museum of Art Image by Hiart available under a Creative Commons License ➚
Cabbage as (白菜 bái cài ‘Chinese cabbage’) or 青菜 qīng cài ‘green cabbage’ has a lucky connotation because 财 cái means ‘wealth, money’. Its key symbolism is that the core is white and pure and so is a person's nature. One of the most famous pieces of jade sculpture is a cabbage with a locust and katydid now at the National Palace Museum ➚.
The best known variety of Chinese cabbage is called by its Cantonese name of Bok Choy ➚ with white stems and dark green leaves there is also Napa cabbage which is 'White Cabbage' 白菜 bái cài just to confuse matters.
Cherry 樱桃 yīng táo
Bird cherry blossom
The cherry tree grows in central and northern China, the wild species were fairly bitter in taste and so were used more as a medicine than for sweetness. Its name in Chinese means ‘baby peach’. A color of a woman’s lips are often likened to a cherry and in general is associated with the beauty of youth. It is considered one of the flowers in the garden of the Queen Mother of the West and from that longevity. The phrase ‘eating cherries’ has to be used with care as it is another euphemism for making love.
Chrysanthemum 菊 jú
Chrysanthemum design motif (Plate 92) available under a Creative Commons License ➚
The chrysanthemum is a much loved flower in China and is often portrayed in pictures. It is a symbol of joy and a wish for peaceful retirement. It sounds similar to 居 jū ‘to reside, to endure’ and久 jiǔ ‘long time’. The pine and chrysanthemum together emphasize the wish for a long life as in 松菊犹存 sōng jú yóu cún. A picture of a chrysanthemum with nine quails symbolizes a wish for nine generations to live in peace in the home 九世同居 jiǔ shì tóng jū. The plant represents autumn and so contrasts with the plum which is the flower of spring. It can withstand frost and so exemplifies stoicism in the face of disappointment.
There are many varieties of chrysanthemum in a great range of colors. Its importance can be judged by the fact that the ninth month in the traditional calendar is named the ‘chrysanthemum month’. The petals can be used to make a soothing, herbal tea and the petals are also used to flavor wine. The love for the chrysanthemum spread to Japan, and the Emperor of Japan's throne is known as the Chrysanthemum Throne ➚.
Cinnamon 桂 guì
The Chinese cinnamon or Cassia spice tree (Cinnamomum cassia) is native to southern China. Its aromatic bark has been used in cooking for thousands of years. 桂花 guì huā can also refer to the Osmanthus (Osmanthus fragrans) or ‘sweet olive’ or ‘tea olive’.
The city of Guilin 桂林 in Guangxi is named after the many osmanthus trees that have been planted there. Osmanthus flowers give a fine fragrance which is given the same character as cassia. The osmanthus blossoms in the 8th lunar month so the month was called 桂月 guì yuè. When depicted with the plum which flowers in Spring it denotes a wish for never ending fragrance meaning a long honorable life. With pomegranate and gourds it gives the wish for many successful sons. It sounds the same as 贵 guì ‘expensive, noble, valuable’ and so the fine scent became associated with passing the Imperial examinations and also because it blooms at the time when the examinations were held. The inscription 桂子兰孙 guì zǐ lán sūn expresses a wish for noble sons and grandsons.
It is a fast growing tree and there is a legend that there was a giant cinnamon tree which grew so fast that its owner could never keep it under control. There is also a legend that the moon has a magical cassia tree which generates a drug giving immortality.
Creeper 蔓 màn
A creeping plant often with tendrils (especially vines) is sometimes used in paintings to symbolize immortality. This is because 蔓 màn sounds a bit like 万 wàn ‘10,000; myriad; forever’. If the picture shows roots (柢 dǐ) of a tree this symbolizes numerous generations (代 dài). Grapes and grapevines are a common motif on Ming dynasty porcelain. Vines are often shown in combination with rats, gourds and grapes.
Cypress 柏 bǎi
Drawing by William Alexander, draughtsman of the Macartney Embassy to China in 1793. A burial site in China. Alexander noted that the tombs and monuments of China exhibited a variety of architectural styles, except those of the common people, which were nothing more than small cones of earth, on the top of which dwarf trees were planted, while rich families planted cypresses. The coffins of the lower class often were left among the tombs uncovered with earth. The graves were occasionally visited by the family, who were keeping them in neat order. Image taken from The Costume of China, illustrated in forty-eight coloured engravings, published in London in 1805. Image available under a Creative Commons Licence ➚
Cypress trees live to a great age; even though they grow gnarled and twisted they still put out lush green growth. They are often planted near burial grounds, and so have a similar association to that of yew trees ➚ in Europe.
A cypress symbolizes longevity and can also symbolize ‘a hundred’ as it sounds the same as 百 bǎi as in the wish ‘may you have a hundred sons’. In some dialects it is pronounced bo which is the same as 伯 bó which means ‘earl, count’ and so may also symbolize a wish to attain a peerage.
Finger Lemon 佛手 fó shǒu
Buddha's hand citron, c. 1800-1900, China, Qing Dynasty, nephrite jade, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. 2010 Image by Wmpearl ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚
The finger lemon is a small citrus tree (Citrus medica) that bears a strange fruit with finger-like protuberances. It has been called ‘Buddha's hand’ (佛手 fó shǒu) or ‘Finger lemon’. It is rarely eaten in China, but instead hung up to give a fresh, citrus fragrance to a room. Symbolically it wishes a prosperous and long life because it sounds like 福寿 fú shòu ‘good fortune and longevity’. In this regard it may be shown along side of a butterfly to express a wish for a long and happy retirement. It is also a good luck talisman by gamblers.
Ginseng 人参 rén shēn
Ginseng roots for sale at a market
Like the mandrake ➚ in Europe, ginseng has been associated with magical powers because its root is shaped like a child (and hence the use of 人 rén ‘person’ in its name). It was believed that it cried when it was harvested. From its coincidental shape it has been used as a powerful magic ingredient. It is now a well-known health tonic, it was originally harvested in Shanxi province, but now comes mainly from Jilin province and Korea.
Jujube 枣树 zǎo shù
The jujube tree (sometimes called the Chinese date tree) bears succulent fruit. Because the sound zǎo is the same as in 早 zǎo ‘early’ a picture of a jujube portrays the wish for ‘soon’. If combined with a lychee in a picture this can be taken to mean a wish for children to be born soon; or if combined with a cinnamon tree a desire for early promotion to high office.
Lychee 荔枝 lì zhī
Bencao yuanshi(Origins of Materia Medica) by Li Zhongli is a herbal in 12 volumes, containing 379 illustrations. It was first published in 1612. This illustration of the lichee (lizhi) is taken from the revised edition of Ge Ding, engraved in 1638 (11th year of the Chongwen reign period of the Ming dynasty, Wu Yi year).Li Zhongli writes: The lichee tree is rounded and spreading, like a curtain. The fruits are spherical or ovoid. The peel is reddish purple peel and tough in texture, and the flesh is white and semi-transparent. The fruit and the stone are used in medicine. Lichee fruit is sweet in sapor, neutral in thermostatic character, and non-poisonous,It has the medicinal properties of generating saliva/bodily fluids and alleviating thirst; regulating Qi and alleviating. It is used to treat insufficiency of vital Qi; tormenting thirst and tormenting thirst with impairment to bodily fluids; scrofula (luoli), growths and tumours; heavy-headed feeling and dryness in the heart, etc. Lichee stone is sweet and bitter in sapor and cold in thermostatic character, and non-poisonous. It has the medicinal properties of warming the centre, regulating Q and alleviating pain. It is used to treat epigastric (weiwan) pain, hernia pain, menstrual cramps, etc. Woodcut. Image by Wellcome Images ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚
The Lychee or Lichee is best known for its white juicy fruit from late summer; the flesh of the fruit surrounds a large, gnarled kernel. In art it symbolizes summer and a wish for children. The latter wish gives it a role in the marriage celebration. If lychees are combined with water chestnuts they symbolize cleverness: 伶俐 líng lì. The fruits are considered yang in traditional medicine and so are eaten to offset an excess of yin.
Lily 百合 bǎi hé
The species of lily most prized in China is the ‘day lily’ (Hemerocallis ➚) whose blooms only last one day. The transitory nature of the flowers is said to help you forget your troubles. Its rapid sequence of flowers makes it a symbol for childbearing and is therefore a suitable gift for newly weds. The grace and beauty are associated with foot binding as an Emperor extolled the virtue of the tiny feet in terms of ‘wherever she steps a lily flowers’ and so bound feet became termed ‘golden lilies’.
Irises are also called 百合 bǎi hé and are considered good for keeping evil at bay particularly at the Dragon boat festival where they were used to decorate doorways.
Lotus 荷花 hé huā
Plate 24. Lotus flower design. Available under a Creative Commons License ➚
The lotus is a much revered motif in Chinese art. Its symbolism comes from Buddhism, it is a plant that grows in the stinking mud of marshes and yet produces pure white blossom, so it symbolizes transformation from evil to good. It directly symbolizes summer, purity and fruitfulness. The lotus is also known as 莲 lián in Chinese and homophones to lian give it symbolic meanings: 廉 lián ‘incorruptible, modest’; lián ‘join; continuous; successive’; 联 lián ‘unite; join’. Another name for the lotus hé brings other associations through the homophones 和 hé ‘harmony; union’ so two lotus flowers symbolize the wish for marital harmony. There are many other associations: one of the eight immortals He Xiangu holds a lotus flower; one of the Heavenly twins (He-he) also holds one; a lotus with a goldfish it symbolizes the wish for an abundance of gold; with a duck a wish for happiness; with a heron a desire for progression... the list is almost endless. Like the lily, the lotus has been associated with bound feet to express their beauty.
It belongs to its own botanic family Nelumbonaceae ➚ separate from the somewhat similar water lily. All parts of the plants have their own name and usage; the fruits and leaves as food; the seeds as medicine. The wheel-like form at the center of its flower symbolizes the wheel of life.
The most well known Buddhist mantra ‘Om mani padme hum’ 唵嘛呢叭咪吽 ǎn ma ní bā mī hōng can be very roughly transliterated as “May I become like the jewel of the Lotus. Amen” 叭咪 bā mī ‘padme’ is the Tibetan name for lotus. The Buddha is said to have contemplated a bank of lotus plants; some mired in mud; some in bud; some below water. He saw the plants as representing the people he wished to bring to flower in the full purity of mind. The Lotus Position ➚ (padmāsana) is a compact cross-legged position for meditation inspired by the overall structure of the lotus.
Magnolia 木兰花 mù lán huā
Depiction of Mulan from 'Gathering Gems of Beauty', Qing dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei Image by Selections ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚
The magnolia is a much loved flower in China. Over the centuries varieties have been selectively bred for early flowering, bloom size and color. An early flowering variety is called 欢春花 Huān chūn huā ‘the flower that welcomes the Spring’. Legend has it that at one time only the Emperor himself and his closest favorites were allowed to grow the shrub.
Like the peony it symbolizes female beauty and so with a butterfly symbolizes a young man's quest for love. Magnolias are also known as 玉兰花 yù lán huā 'jade orchid flower' and together with a crab apple 海棠 hǎi táng and peony give 玉堂富贵 yù táng fù guì meaning a wish for wealth and honor as ‘Jade Hall’ (yutang) was the academy of scholars. In a painting with bees a magnolia gives the meaning of self-esteem. The bark of the plant is used in traditional medicine.
The name 木兰 Mù lán is most associated with a warrior-maiden who took to the military to save her father from forced service some time in the Period of Disunity; she served many years and rose to a high rank and the whole time her true gender went undiscovered. The story was made into a successful Disney animated film 'Mulan ➚'.
Maple 枫木 fēng mù
Bird on Maple Branch with Morning Glories, c. 1870. Shanghai, China Image by Walters Art Museum ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚
In a typical ‘sounds like’ allusion 枫 fēng a maple in a picture confers the wish for an appointment because of the identically sounding 封 fēng ‘grant, confer’. The idea of a wish for appointment to a good job can be expressed by a monkey seeking a red box in a maple tree, where the package represents the seal of office (封侯褂印 fēng hóu guà yìn).
Melon 瓜 guā
Lidded box in form of a melon with grapevines, probably Chang'an, Shaanxi province, China, early to mid Tang dynasty, late 7th-early 8th century AD, cast and hammered silver. Image by Daderot ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚
The round melon fruit represents a pregnant woman’s ‘bump’ and is full of seeds and so in a painting symbolizes a wish for many children (sons). Melons are often shown with vine like foliage. The town of Turpan in Xinjiang is famous for growing many sweet melons in the hot summer heat.
Mulberry 桑 sāng
The hollow trunk of the mulberry tree 浮桑 fú sāng was considered the resting place of the sun and Imperial rulers; and so it became associated with where the sun rises each day.
Mulberry trees are very widely planted in China because they are the food plant of the silkworm. They were considered unlucky if placed in front of a house because 桑 sāng sounds like 丧 sàng which means ‘loss, mourning and death’. In some areas a twig of mulberry was worn to indicate that you were in mourning.
Narcissus 水仙 shuǐ xiān
Victoria Park Fair, Hong Kong, 2012 Image by Zhu Fok Gam available under a Creative Commons License ➚
As it sprouts and flowers each year in Spring the Narcissus is called literally a ‘water immortal’ and in a painting may symbolize the immortals and good fortune. Stones, bamboo and narcissii together give the wish ‘may the immortals grant a wish for a long life’. The flowering time is just right for the New Year festival. Families force them to flower early by growing in a pot with water and pebbles. It is particularly treasured in Fujian province.
There is a similar and often confused plant – the Sacred Lily 万年青 wàn nián qīng (Rohdea japonica) which is similar to the arum lily as it has red berries but strap-like leaves like the narcissus. As a gift it gives the wish for a venture to prosper for 万年 wàn nián ten thousand years .
Onion 葱头 cōng tóu
An onion form the late 19th century onwards has come to symbolize cleverness as 葱 cōng sounds the same as 聪 cōng 'clever, sharp witted, wise'.
Opium 阿芙蓉 ā fú róng
Ivory opium pipe with metal mount and terracotta bowl, Chinese This ornate ivory pipe is engraved with figures and scenes and the terracotta bowl is decorated with a pottery frog and enamelled flowers. Heated opium would have been placed in the top of this bowl and the fumes inhaled through the pipe. Opium is a very powerful drug. Medicinally it was used for pain relief and inducing sleep, but over the centuries many people have become hopelessly addicted to it. By the late 1700s, opium had been used in much of Asia for several hundred years. In China, for example, opium had been in use medicinally since Arab traders brought it from the Middle East in the 600s or 700s CE. Styles of opium pipe reflected the relative wealth or poverty of their owners and ranged from bejewelled, elaborately ornamented works of art like this one to simple constructions of clay or bamboo. Image by Wellcome Trust ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚
Opium was used as a medicine for centuries before it became a problem in China. It was when it was smoked that it caused huge problems with addiction. Opium poppies were grown for centuries in the south west of China - particularly in Yunnan. The poppy flower appears on some porcelain and represents the twelfth month.
Originally it was not illegal to buy opium, but there was a ban on importing the drug into China. The British inherited an opium production area in northern India and opium trade with China when they conquered India. This opium was purer and cheaper than that produced in China and began to be illegally imported. It was the middle ranking officials who seem to have suffered most from addiction and this brought the whole Imperial administration to collapse.
Orange 橘 jú
Dish of oranges, Hong Kong. Image by Fung Kimmia available under a Creative Commons License ➚
Oranges are grown in southern China and were popular presents for children. The character 桔 jú is made up of the radical 木 mù ‘wood’ and 吉 jí ‘lucky’. Also ju sounds close to 祝 zhù ‘to wish’ so it symbolizes a wish for good fortune. Persimmons and tangerines together give a wish for success in all things. Lots of oranges and tangerines are consumed at the New Year festival. A tribute of oranges used to be sent from Fujian province to Beijing in time for the Spring festivities. Orange peel is considered an effective medicine.
The boy Lu ji is put forward as an example of filial piety because when he was given some oranges instead of eating them himself he gave them to his mother. A boy shooting an arrow at three oranges indicates a wish for him to come first (hit the target) in all three levels of examination, here the orange is just a symbol for a circle 圆 yuán to form 中三元 lián zhòng sān yuán.
Orchid 兰 lán
Three bats, orchid and plant of immortality - a wish for long life, beauty and good fortune.
The orchid and particularly its fragrance is associated with female beauty, it stands for modesty and refinement. Although beautiful it tends to grow in small groups in isolated areas rather than as a great mass of blooms. There are very many different types of wild orchid in China which are highly prized. Lan is a popular girl's name.
The orchid was even praised by Confucius as an emblem of the perfect man. Together with bamboo the orchid is considered an ideal subject for painting. The ability to capture the daintiness and fragility of the flowers and foliage is a great skill. According to the Yi Jing ‘marital sharpness is broken when they are in harmony, the words of harmony are as fragrant as orchids’. The early poet and statesmen Qu Yuan, immortalized by the Dragon Boat Festival, likened the career of scholars to fragrant orchids that can only prosper under a wise and just ruler.
Young women who did not want to marry joined the Golden Orchid Society in Guangdong in the 19th century. The society was violently suppressed as it was considered immoral for a woman not to wish to marry.
Peach 桃 táo
Old Chinese print showing the Peach Garden from Romance of the Three Kingdoms Image by Philg88 ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚
Peaches are a common art motif. The most famous association is with the peaches of immortality that grow in the gardens of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu). These trees bore fruit only once every three thousand years. The god of longevity is often portrayed emerging from a peach. The monkey king stole some of the fruits causing consternation in heaven and required the intervention of the Jade Emperor according to the very famous story: The Journey to the West.
Peach trees are grown throughout China and many parts of the plant are used in traditional medicine. The timber is reputed to keep away demons and branches were placed at the entrance to houses at New Year for this purpose. This is probably from the homophone 淘 táo ‘to eliminate’.
Just as in Europe, spring is a favorite time for marriages and as this is the time of peach blossom, peaches are associated with marriage. The fresh complexion of a girl is likened to the blush of a peach. A birthday greeting can sometimes be represented as a peach tree on a mountain with bat and waves to give the greeting 福如东海寿比南山 Fú rú dōng hǎi shòu bǐ nán shān 'may your good fortune be as deep as the Eastern Sea and you live as long as the Southern Mountain'.
Pear 梨 lí
Parrot and insect among pear blossoms. Formerly attributed to Huang Jucai 10th century (Chinese). Ink and color on silk. c. 1270. Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚
Pears are a long lived fruit tree, as they can survive for 350 years, and so they symbolize a wish for a long life. However unlike most other fruits the pear has a unfortunate homophone as 离 lí means ‘separate; divide’ so it should never be given as a present to a couple.
For the same reason it is inappropriate at the Hungry Ghost Festival as that would indicate separation from the spirit of the ancestors. Pear blossom with raindrops is considered one of the most beautiful sights and so is associated with a beautiful girl. Parts of the plant are used as medicine for fever and diarrhea.
Peony 牡丹 mǔ dān
Decorative motifs. Plate 56. Available under a Creative Commons License ➚
The tree peony is one of the most loved flowers in China. It became mudan after centuries of being known as 芍药 sháo yào possibly due to the appearance of a red variety (as dan is one word for 'red'). White peonies 白牡丹 bái mǔ dān represent talented young girls with wit as well as beauty. A peony symbolizes, as many flowers do, a young girl. ‘The Peony Pavilion’ 牡丹亭 mǔ dan tíng is a very famous Kunqu Opera 昆曲 about young love. The peony has a double flower and that has led to a hidden meaning of a wish for repeated riches. The tree peony can grow quite tall 6 feet [2 meters] and live for a hundred years. Districts in Henan and Shandong provinces attract many visitors during the flowering season, it is regarded with the same affection that the rose is in the West.
The flower was much admired in the works of the great Tang poets. On occasions it is considered the flower of Spring and competes with the lotus; chrysanthemum and plum for supremacy; together with the peony all four represent the whole year. A legend has Empress Wu Zetian ordering all flowers to bloom and when the peony disobeyed she had it dug up and burned. The health of a garden peony was thought to presage that of its owning family, if it should fall sick it was an ill omen. In combination with other symbols such as the phoenix, pheasant and peacock a peony represents a good reputation.
Persimmon 柿 shì
Persimmons from the Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Calligraphy and Painting (Shizhuzhai shuhua pu), by Hu Zhengyan, 1633. Available under a Creative Commons License ➚
The persimmon is grown for its large juicy fruits and is often called the ‘Chinese fig’. It grows well on mountain slopes in northern China. The fruits are orange and shaped like beef tomatoes. The bright orange/red color makes it suitable for festive decorations.
As 事 shì ‘matter; business; affair’ sounds the same it is used to combine with other objects to give good wishes for an undertaking. With oranges (tangerines) it means ‘good luck in your affairs’ with an apple it means ‘contentment in affairs’. A persimmon with a pine tree and an orange wishes good luck in a hundred business matters (百事吉利 bǎi shì jí lì). It is often planted in temple gardens as it is said to have four virtues: long life; sheltering birds; giving shade and freedom from insect pests.
Pine 松 sōng
Wang Meng: Writing Books under the Pine Trees. Cleveland Museum of Art. Image by Wang Meng ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚
The pine tree is one of the three friends of winter - together with plums and bamboo because it is evergreen and does not drop its needles. It is a favorite subject in Chinese landscape paintings. It symbolizes longevity, solitude and steadfastness; as the needles grow in pairs it is also a symbol of married bliss. With a crane a pine tree gives the wish for a peaceful and long life.
Pine trees are commonly planted around graveyards (see also cypresses) perhaps due to the association of longevity or may be due to a legend that the graveyard demons 罔象 wǎngxiàng are kept away by them. Bunge's pine ➚ 白皮松 bái pí sōng is widely grown as an ornamental pine tree in parks and gardens.
松籁 Sōng lài or 松涛 sōng tāo is the music of pine trees as the wind soughs through its needles and branches and is much loved by the poets. A pine tree at the foot of the sacred Mount Taishan, Shandong was granted an official's title by the first Qin Emperor Shihuangdi - the ‘Welcoming-Guest Pine’, but it has been replaced a number of times over the succeeding centuries.
Plum 梅 méi
Chinese painting of Spring blossom
The welcome blossoms of plum trees in late winter has made the plum tree a popular plant. It is one of the three friends of winter with the bamboo and the pine tree. It is also widely known by the character 李 lǐ which is made up of two elements ‘wood’ and ‘child’ suggesting the prolific fruits produced by the tree. 桃李 Táo lǐ ‘peaches and plums’ is a phrase to refer to school children.
Because the flowers emerge before the leaves and it takes a long time to come into flower it is associated with longevity. It is often shown with a crane, another symbol of longevity; with a ruyi is is a wish for a peaceful, long life. A popular pattern has plum blossom over cracked ice symbolizing Spring. A plum tree at Huangmei, Hebei is believed to be 1,600 years old. As the Chinese Spring Festival may fall as late as mid-February, it flowers at the end of the Chinese season of winter.
The Daoist philosopher Laozi is said to have been born beneath a plum tree. It has been a popular subject for poetry for centuries. The Song poet Lin Bu spent his days feeding cranes and planting plum trees near West Lake, Hangzhou. The five petals of the flower represent one of the many ‘fives’ in Chinese symbolism including the five gods of prosperity; five good fortunes; five good luck gods etc..
Pomegranate 石榴 shí liu
Pilgrim flask decorated with peaches and pomegrenates; Ming Dynasty, 1st half of 17th century. Museum Rietberg, Zurich; Collection Alice and Pierre Uldry; Inventory U138 Image by Andreas Praefcke available under a Creative Commons License ➚
The pomegranate fruit is brim full of seeds, and as seed in Chinese 子 zǐ also means children, it chiefly symbolizes a wish for many children. This can be emphasized by portraying children with pomegranates in a picture. The pomegranate is sometimes known as the Chinese apple. It is an appropriate as a marriage gift with the inscription 榴开百子 liú kāi bǎi zǐ ‘the pomegranate brings forth a hundred seeds/sons’. It sounds the same as 十六 shí liù ‘sixteen’ and so is also associated with commemorating a sixteenth birthday. In symbolism a pomegranate may also represent a wish for a title to be continued into the next generation as 世 shì means ‘generation; noble’.
Rose 蔷薇 qiáng wēi
In Europe the rose is one of the most frequently seen motifs and often represents love with its bloom, fragrance and thorns. Not so much in China, despite the fact that many species of rose planted in Europe and America originate from China. It may symbolize youth and together with bees, sweetness, but more commonly will be seen on goods destined for export.
Walnut 胡桃 hú táo
The walnut may have come to China quite late, the term 胡 hú probably relates to people to the north of China who introduced the tree after the Han dynasty. 胡桃 Hú táo also means ‘flirt’ because of a story of a couple who were estranged for a long while, when the husband (named Hu) returned he flirted with his own wife as he failed to recognize her. So a walnut has come to symbolize a flirtation.
Willow 柳 liǔ
Decorated in blue sk. Willow pattern. On the inside bottom of a river landscape with buildings. c. 1760. Hallwyl Museum, Sweden. Image by Jens Mohr ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚
The widespread willow is a very useful tree. It provides material for all sorts of purposes including baskets, ropes and firewood. It is associated with Spring and therefore also with romance. The grace of a willow tree is often compared to the meekness and charm of a young woman. In combination with a swallow it symbolizes artistic ability. Willow is supposed to keep evil spirits at bay and is often seen in the form of a willow broom at the Qing Ming festival for this reason. It is widely prescribed in traditional medicine, and this has proven efficacy as willow bark is a source of salicylic acid - aspirin.
The famous willow pattern on porcelain, widely exported to Europe and imitated by European potters, immortalizes the tale of young love. A poor young man falls in love with the daughter of his rich employer. Many of the elements in the willow pattern design relate to incidents in the story. A willow tree is featured prominently and hence the name.
When people left home they were often given willow twigs as a parting gift as li sounds the same as 离 lí ‘to part’. Willow will sprout readily from cuttings and so a tree could be planted to give a continual reminder of home.
Wood Oil Tree 梧桐 wú tóng
There are several trees given the general term 同 tòng including the Parasol tree (Firmiana simplex ➚) and Paulownia imperialis ➚. Because tong also means ‘shared, joint, together’ the tree represents a wish for a shared and peaceful life. As it lives for a long time it also symbolizes longevity. A magpie 喜鹊 xǐ què in a wutong tree symbolizes ‘joy together’ 禧同 xǐtóng.
Paulownia imperialis produces an oil that is very useful for preserving wood - and from this comes its English name. Its wood is also used to make excellent guqin instruments. The tree is associated with the phoenix and yin, as the phoenix is such an auspicious creature wutong trees were planted in the hope it may attract one to land on it.
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