In ancient China, people called a man of great virtue a gentleman.
In the world of flowers plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo and chrysanthemums are known as the four gentlemen in China because these plants’ natural character have something in common with human virtues.
They have all long been featured in ancient paintings and poems used to express loftiness, righteousness, modesty and purity by Chinese literati.
According to historical records, plum blossoms appeared on drawing paper as early as the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-581).
Painting plum blossoms came into vogue by the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127); at that time, the most famous painter was the Buddhist monk Zhong Ren who created a unique way of drawing with Chinese ink, controlling its shades to give a very active appearance.
Wang Mian, the most outstanding master in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) was notable for his vigorous masterpiece Ink Plum Blossom.
Grown in deep mountain valleys, orchids are one of the top ten well-known flowers in China. Chinese people usually link orchids with elegance owing to their delicate fragrance that refreshes people’s minds and the elegant figures swaying slightly in the wind
Becoming popular during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), orchids arrived later than plum blossoms and people didn’t pay much attention to orchid paintings until Song Dynasty (960-1279). It is said that Sushi (a famous poet in Song Dynasty) once painted orchids with some thorns between them, implying that a gentle man can tolerate a mean person.
With the downfall of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), people in the early Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) expressed their unyielding integrity by painting orchids. The masters in that time were Zhao Mengjian and Zheng Sixiao.
The most noted painter of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) was Zheng Suonan whose paintings implied definite connotations. The orchids he painted were never with roots, as if floating in the air, which manifested Zheng’s feeling of homelessness with the downfall of the Song Dynasty.
The excellent orchid painter of the Qing Dynasty was Zheng Banqiao who attached great importance on the nature of orchids. He had a preference for painting wild orchids; he once planted potted orchids by himself and transplanted them in the mountain after spring with the expectation of them growing naturally.
In traditional Chinese culture, bamboo is a metaphor of vitality and longevity, which usually relates to man who has exemplary conduct and nobility of character.
There is a beautiful myth about bamboo. In remote ancient times, two of the emperor Shun’s concubines were very sad over Shun’s death and cried all day long; finally they committed suicide by drowning themselves in the river. The concubines’ tears shed onto the bamboo forming some mottles on them, which were called mottled bamboos in later generations.
Silently grown in desolate mountains, bamboo is very slim with joints on their stem and their leaves are like scabbards; their firm and indomitable willpower was admired by many ancient literati and painters. Sushi expressed his love for bamboo in his poems: “Rather eat without meat than live without bamboo. Man without meat will be thin, but without bamboo will be vulgar." To Su, bamboo was more important than food.
Compared with the other three plants, chrysanthemum is much less presented in the traditional Chinese ink paintings. One of the most reputed painted chrysanthemums is the Painting of Chrysanthemum and Rock by Chen Chun of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which is collected by the Capital Museum.
Chrysanthemums are a traditional flower loved by Chinese people, planted as early as three thousands years ago. When nearly all the flowers are withered and bare in late autumn only the chrysanthemums withstand the heavy frost and bloom energetically in graceful shapes and bright colors.
Chrysanthemums under the pen of literati are given more meaning. The most well-known verse about chrysanthemums is “Plucking chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge, I calmly view the southern hills”, which come from the famous poet Tao Yuanming’s poem “Drinking”, showing the leisure of Tao’s reclusive life.
Known as the four gentlemen, plum blossoms, orchids, bamboos and chrysanthemums have become a cultural symbol to label one’s moral integrity, not only because of their elegant nature but also thanks to the appreciation and high praise from the painters and literati of different dynasties.