Plum blossom, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum were adored by the ancient Chinese literati and artisans, and referred to as the “Four Noblemen.” This was because they were used to portray noble characteristics, such as pureness, humbleness, and uprightness.
The first “nobleman” is plum blossom which begins blooming in the harshness of winter and continues into early spring. It is seen as bringing vigor and vitality to the world.
The dance “Plum Blossom” in the 2006 Chinese New Year Global Gala truly brought the spirit of this flower to the stage. The performance captured the essential nature of plum blossoms, “a fragrance coming from the bitterness and coldness they experience.”
The dance themes included: blossoming, braving snow, and heralding the arrival of the spring. Gracefully movements were used by the dancers to depict the peaceful blossoming of plum flowers in the cold winter. Suddenly, a thunderstorm appeared blowing fierce cold winds. The heart of the story is displayed as the dancers represented the inner strength and unyielding courage of plum blossoms. Then, the storm stopped and the sunshine finally burst forth. After experiencing the ordeal, the plum blossoms became even more beautiful.
The beauty of plum blossoms are not just due to their color or that it is the only flower blossoming in the winter. It is also because each gentle petal has grown through the cruelty of the winter storm, and represents the essence of the process of growth.
In the traditional Chinese style of writing, the character for plum blossom was endowed with unique inner meanings and expressed the virtues of courage, strength, and taking fame and wealth lightly. It is said that an artist who creates a fine portrait of plum blossoms should have the noble characters of plum blossoms. So, when painting this flower an artist strives to express their unyielding courage and noble character. Many painters in China love to draw plum blossoms, but not everyone of them does it well.
Shi Zhongren, a monk during the Song Dynasty, was well known for his plum blossoms paintings on thin silk using black ink. It is believed that the reason he painted plum blossom well was because he was a cultivator with a noble personality.
The master of painting this flower was Wang Mian, an artist in the Yuan Dynasty. Wang stated that paintings were poems with no words, and poems were paintings with words. Different from Shi’s style with a few branches and plum flowers, Wang’s paintings contained many branches and plum flowers, expressing uprightness and enthusiasm.
Other artists in the Ming and Qing Dynasties were also famous for their paintings of plum blossoms. Their painting styles may vary considerably, but they shared one similarity noble characters.
[- Author Tony Dai is an art collector, critic, and writer.]