Within the rich world of Chinese symbolic elements frequently depicted on silk, paper, porcelain, or murals, orchid symbolize the virtues of a nobel man, a literati. It has been related to the image of a loyal official and his moral qualities being in accordance to the Confucian hierarchy of values.
Orchids may be found in hundreds of spices but the Chinese aesthetics had chosen those most humble, insignificant plants, growing in the wild and having small, yellowish, fragrant blossom.
There are numerous examples of beautiful Chinese ink paintings where the orchids are single object or part of a composition: Orchid Zheng Sixiao (1241-1318), Orchid and Rock Ma Shouzhen (1584 - 1604), Orchids and Bamboo PanGongshou (1741 - 1794). Just to mention a few.
The example showed below may give an idea of the kind I´m talking about. Its purple flowers symbolize a wish and auspicious omen for plenty of grandsons. Yet another aspect of the orchids symbolic meaning.
Section of hanging scroll. Private collection. photo: Krystyna Kierebinski
Even though the most famous paintings are monochrome and sketchy the example here shows the typical features of the symbolic Chinese orchid. Its long bent leaves are easy to recognize.
Beside the noble virtues and wish for grandsons it also symbolizes spring. The other seasons are represented by plum blossom - winter, lotus - summer, and chrysanthemum- autumn.
Let us look at the orchids of the Hué´s Imperial City.
Decoration on a wall separating Forbidden City from the rest of the Citadel. photo: Krystyna Kierebinski 2012
As we can see, only the traces are left but the form of the long thin bent leaves is easily visible.
Our orchid can be recognized here on the left. The gate was leading from the Forbidden City to Imperial part. Through this one the arcade could be entered leading to the Theater. photo: Krystyna Kierebinski, 2012
The uspectacular orchid plant was often combined with other plants or elements creating not only the artistic achevement of the painter but first and formost a whole idea well recognized by the beholder. One of such a groups was The Four Nobles or Four Gentelmen of the Year. Here the orchid was acompanied by plum blossom Prunus mume, chrisantemum and bamboo. Other classical compositions consist orkid, rock and pine trea, or orkid, rock and bamboo.
Vase for the offered flowers. photo: Krystyna Kierebinski, 2012
The vase seen at the photograph above is most probably a new production and having nothing to do with the old Hué but the pattern is classic, copied through the centuries. In the central part we can easily recognize the slightly bending bamboo plant with the small orchid by its feet. We do not have to see the orchids flowers, the long leaves announce its presence.
Painted pillar, part of a balustrade around small pong. photo: Krystyna Kierebinski, 2012
May not be so easy to see but the closer look let us confirm the precence of a few orchid plants accompanied by the chrysantemum flower. The damage and time made the rest of the composition almost vanish.
Painted relief, one of four, on the gate in the Forbidden City. photo: Krystyna Kierebinski, 2012
As mentioned before, orchid was often depicted together with rock and the pine trea. The last one, being an evergeen, is a symbol of longevity and steadfastness. Pine is also one of The Three Friends of Winter together with bamboo and plum blossom.
Painted relief, one of four, on the gate within the Forbidden City. photo: Krystyna Kierebinski, 2012
Here the orchids are growing accompanied by the rock and bamboo. Bamboo, so easy to bend, is symbol of flexibility, endurance, and youth. Presence of the rock on both shown above reliefs remindes of the great fondness of them among the litarati. Often placed in the gardens, rocks of different shapes were the symbol of the microcosm and the subject of meditation. In miniature, they were often placed on the scholar´s desk as a intelectual inspiration.
Wooden walking gallery on the area between the Theater and the Imperial Library, decorated with various symbolic emblems. photo: Krystyna Kierebinski, 2012
Close up. Wooden relief on the walking gallery wall. photo: Krystyna Kierebinski, 2012
Admired from the ground, the orchid is not easy to recognize but I think it´s there. The leaves could belong to narcisus but the small flower looks more like an orchid blossom. There is yet another element i the composition, reminding of a leaf or a feather. I would say it is an artemisia leaf. This plant is known for its unpleasnat smell which was very helpful and wildly used against the evil spirits and ghosts. This quality gave artemisia its status of protective symbol.
To be continued...