Chinese porcelain has been decorated with a huge variety of motifs in the years since the first recognisable shapes appeared on painted pottery in the Neolithic period. Since the Song dynasty (960-1279) flowers have been among the most popular decorative themes.
The choice of designs was based not only on their beauty, but also on what the motifs represented. ‘Throughout Chinese history, symbolism has been integral to its artwork,’ says Katie Lundie, Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Specialist at Christie’s in London. ‘These links are often very playful.’
The decoration of a piece of Chinese art often serves two purposes. Besides simply decorating the surface, the decoration usually presents a veiled auspicious meaning.
1. Lotus (莲 Lian, 荷 He)
Thanks to the Buddhist influence, the lotus (or sea-rose) is of unique importance in Chinese folklore and symbolism. It is the symbol of purity and one of the eight Buddhist precious things. The lotus comes out of the mire but is not itself soiled. It is inwardly empty yet outwardly upright. It has no branches (no family/offsprings) but yet smells sweet. The words for lotus in Chinese have the same meanings as: to bind, connect (in marriage), one after the other, uninterrupted, to love, and modesty.
The scroll lotus pattern decal in Jingdezhen
The lotus flower is associated with Buddhism and is a symbol of feminine beauty; it is also associated with purity because it rises unsullied from the mud. In Chinese, one word for lotus (荷 he) is a homophone for the word for ‘harmony’ (和).
2. Plum flower(梅 Mei)
Plum blossom symbolises the arrival of spring, as well as perseverance and purity. Five petals represent the ‘Five Blessings’: longevity, wealth, health, love and virtue, and a peaceful death.
The welcome blossoms of plum trees in late winter has made the plum tree a popular plant. 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 many of the ‘fives’ in Chinese symbolism including the five gods of prosperity; five good fortunes; five good luck gods etc.
The plum blossom has been an important symbol in Chinese culture. As a “friend of winter,” the plum blossom most vividly represents the value of endurance, as life ultimately overcomes through the vicissitude of time. The fragrance of plum blossoms “comes from the bitterness and coldness,” as the Chinese saying goes. Souls are tempered in the depth of experience, growing in inner strength and unyielding courage.
Unity of culture and nature has been an important part of the Chinese tradition, and elements of nature embody important cultural values. The plum, together with the orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum, have been named the “four nobles” of plants by the ancient Chinese, each because of its noble characteristics, such as purity (orchid), uprightness (bamboo), and humility (chrysanthemum).
Zhu Xi, a noted Song Dynasty Confucian scholar, gave the plum four virtues: the great potential in the bud, prosperity in the flower, harmony in the fruit, and rightness in its maturity—all of which embody the characteristics of heaven (qian), according to the Book of Change. Chinese also see the five-petaled flower as symbolizing five blessings: longevity, prosperity, health, virtue, and good living.
The plum blossom has been an important object for poems and paintings since the Tang Dynasty, reaching a peak during the Song Dynasty. Under the brush pen of literati and artisans, the plum blossom’s spirit was celebrated.
For poet Lin Bu of the Song Dynasty, the flower was more than a symbol, but a friend and soul mate. His famous verses about the plum blossom have been passed down through generations:
All flowers have withered, you alone blossom,
occupying the focal scenery of the small garden.
Delicate branches cast shadows aslant over clear shallow water;
secret fragrance floats lightly in the moonlit dusk.
Lu You, another Song Dynasty poet, is also known for poems about the plum blossom. In “Ode to Plum Blossom,” he described:
I used to ride a horse to visit Western Chengdu,
Intoxicated with the sweet smell of plum blossom.
Fragrance continued for twenty li,
from Qingyang palace to Huanhua brook.
The poet expressed the wish of being one with the plum blossom:
How can I transform my body into millions,
each enjoying the blossom by a plum tree.
Su Dongpo, also a celebrated Song Dynasty poet, is probably responsible for the style of art that focuses on portraying the inner spirit of nature, rather than its outer forms. He said, “The beauty of the plum goes beyond the sour taste of its fruit.” His idea of transcending the physical deeply influenced the painting of plum blossoms, especially in the style of “ink plum,” using only the black ink to paint the plum tree and blossoms.
Shi Zhongren, the creator of the “ink plum” style on silk, was a monk during the Song Dynasty. The noble nature of the plum blossom requires, as the Chinese believe, that painters of the flower be noble people. Shi cultivated an inner awareness that is important for his art, and his paintings were considered “wordless poetry.”
“Plum painting requires plum’s nobility; the purity of the painter follows that of the plum blossom,” said Wang Mian of the Yuan Dynasty, who followed Shi in the ink-style painting of the plum blossom. Unlike Shi’s style with a few branches and plum flowers, Wang painted many branches and plum flowers, expressing uprightness and enthusiasm. Wang lived in seclusion where he planted thousands of plum trees around his living quarters “House of Plum Blossom.” His poem on the plum blossom bears resemblance to his own life:
Situating in the forest, with ice and snow,
not mixing with the dust of peach and pear flowers.
Suddenly fragrance emerges one night,
spreading to heaven and earth, bringing spring to all the land.
Katie Lundie Say it with flowers: An expert guide to the symbolism of Chinese ceramic decoration available at https://www.christies.com/features/A-guide-to-the-symbolism-of-Chinese-ceramic-decoration-9163-3.aspx