Flowers and plants are held in very high regard in Chinese philosophy.
The mere mention of a particular plant in a poem for example, can exemplify what an artist was trying to convey in his work. A symbol can tell a hundred words.
The appearance of plants and flowers in Chinese art is usually designed with the intention to communicate messages. It is never by random chance for a chrysanthemum for example, to appear on a porcelain vase.
While each plant carries it’s symbolism, many also belong to groups that carry other themes or symbolism as well.
Here are some of the best known groupings of flowers and plants in Chinese culture.
1) The 12 months
Based on the lunar calendar, certain plants are associated with particular months of the year.
- Month 1 – Plum blossoms
- Month 2 – Apricot blossoms, peach blossoms
- Month 3 – Peony
- Month 4 – Cherry blossoms
- Month 5 – Magnolia
- Month 6 – Pomegranate flower
- Month 7 – Lotus, orchid
- Month 8 – Quince, pear blossoms
- Month 9 – Mallow blossoms, cassia
- Month 10 – Chrysanthemum
- Month 11 – Gardenia
- Month 12 – Poppy
It should be noted that the Chinese lunar calendar is very different from the Gregorian calendar that we use today. The first day of the first month in the lunar calendar usually starts in late January or early February.
There is also a grouping for the 4 seasons.
This is a grouping called the 4 flowers of the 4 seasons (四季名花).
This group is a reference to specific flowers that represents particular seasons.
- Spring – Orchid
- Summer – Lotus
- Autumn – Chrysanthemum
- Winter – Plum blossoms
However, from later works some alternative flowering plants were used by scholars to represent certain seasons. But they generally convey the same meanings and symbolism.
These substitutes are frequently:
- Spring – Magnolia, peony, wisteria
- Summer – Iris, willow
- Autumn – Camellia, grape tree
- Winter – Bamboo, pine
The 4 flowers of the seasons is often confused with the 4 gentlemen of flowers.
3) 10 traditional flowers of China
This is a celebrated group of 10 flowers that are considered culturally and historically significant in Chinese history.
It’s a common sight to see oriental gardens flushed with these flowering plants to create that captivating scene of vivid colors like being in a movie set.
Each has it’s own symbolism and commonly found in paintings, artwork and literary art. Their subtle philosophical messages should also not be undermined.
4) 4 gentlemen of flowers
The grouping called the 4 gentlemen of flowers (司君子), is sometimes also known as the 4 virtuous plants or 4 noble plants.
This group is a reference to desirable noble qualities to embody such as being self-assured, humility, righteousness, peaceful, etc.
The group of 4 gentlemen consist of orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum and plum.
When compared to the 4 flowers of seasons, 3 of the 4 members are similar with the exception of bamboo which replaces the lotus. And the 4 gentlemen is not meant to represent the seasons.
5) 3 friends of winter
The 3 friends of winter (岁寒三友) is a group of plants that are known to be steadfast during winter.
The 3 plants are the pine tree, bamboo and plum.
Together they symbolize strength, trust and unity among people in the face of adversity.
It is a popular depiction in paintings to call for harmony within the household or at the office.
6) 3 hermits
The 3 hermits of flowers is a trio of flowers that is meant to convey the message that resonates deeply with Chinese culture.
It signifies that exceptionally talented people can be all around us. Just because they do not pursue fame should not undercut their ability and capacity. Do not underestimate or look down on people who don’t appear sophisticated. True class and ability comes from within.
When we consider that sages often seek spirituality, it is not surprising that many can be considered hermits as they have no desire for fame.
The 3 hermits consist of the plum, chrysanthemum and narcissus.