Bamboo, Plum, and Other Plants

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Amateur painters, from Su Shi and his friends on, had favored painting bamboo and flowering plum in ink monochrome, in part at least because those skilled in the use of the brush for calligraphy could master these genres relatively easily.  Bamboo, plum, orchid, pine, and other plants had over the centuries acquired a rich range of associated meanings, largely from poetry.  In Song and especially Yuan times, scholar painters began to systematically exploit these possibilities for conveying meaning through their pictures.  


Orchids, ever since Qu Yuan in the Warring States Period, had been associated with the virtues of the high-principled man.   The orchid is fragile, modest, but its fragrance penetrates into hidden places.

Zheng Sixiao, the painter of this picture, wrote the poem on the right, a friend the one on the left.


Note that there is no ground in this painting.  When asked why he omitted it, Zheng said that the barbarians had stolen the ground. 

Zheng Sixiao (1241-1318), Orchid                                           source


The artist here has inscribed a poem on the painting that refers to the coolness and refreshing quality of the autumn melon for one who is experiencing the full heat of summer.


Because of this poem, well-educated viewers of this painting would think of literary references to melons, giving the painting deeper meaning.


Just from looking at this painting, would you have guessed that it carried any larger meaning?





Qian Xuan (ca. 1235- after 1301), Autumn Melon                       source

This painting has all three of the "three friends of winter," pine, plum, and bamboo.


Bamboo, because it is flexible and can withstand storms without breaking, is a symbol of survival in adversity.

Zhao Mengjian (1199? - 1264 AD), Three Friends of Winter          source


    For a closer view, click here.


What do you think pine and plum symbolize?





Note the inscriptions on the painting below, added by scholars who viewed it.


Do you think the artist left space for the inscriptions?

Wu Zhen (1280-1354), Plum and Bamboo                                                   source



Wu Zhen, the painter of this rock and bamboo, was a true recluse. He rarely left his hometown and made his living by fortune-telling and selling paintings.

Wu Zhen (1280-1354), Old Tree, Bamboo and Rock                 source

Although bamboo leaves could be painted with single, calligraphic strokes, of the sort Wu Zhen used above, some literati painters also did bamboo with outline and fill techniques associated more with professional and court painters.


Do you think the way the bamboo was painted affected the way people interpreted its meaning?


Compare this bamboo painting to the ones above and below in terms of brushwork and composition.




Li Kan (1254-1320), Bamboo and Rock               source

Tan Zhirui (Yuan), Bamboo and Rocks    source



Why would scholar painters paint brightly colored flowers like peonies in different tones of ink?

Wang Qian (Yuan), Peony                                     source


One of the qualities sought by scholar painters was simplicity, plainness, understatement, seen as the opposite of showy, flashy paintings. Paintings of plums often were done using very simple strokes.





This is just a small detail of a painting of a blossoming branch by Wang Mian.  To see the entire painting, click here.





Wang Mian (1287-1359), Ink Plum                                            source

Three artists collaborated on this painting.  Gu, Zhang, and Yang did the painting together, then Ni Can, some time later, added the rock and the inscription in the upper right.


Would you have been able to tell that this painting was done by several different hands?


What would artists have gotten out of  collaborating to make a single painting?

Gu An, Zhang Shen, and Ni Zan with an inscription by Yang Weizhen, Winter Bamboo and Rock                                                              source


Move on to Technical Aspects of Painting