Plum (or Prunus mume), Orchid, Bamboo, and Chrysanthemum are regarded as “Four Men in Honor” among flowers. They can also be used to describe four characteristics of a scholar that we respect most. (Scholars are called Jun Zi in Chinese. From the very beginning of Chinese feudalistic history, scholars enjoy much higher social status than farmers, businessmen, and technicians).
It’s conventional to read them in such an order as Plum, Orchid, Bamboo, and Chrysanthemum. In Chinese, they are Mei, Lan, Zhu, Ju respectively.
Although they stand for different characters, here I need to say that they do have common features.
• They constantly strive to become stronger.
• They have simple but dignified appearance.
• They never flatter or bow down to fatuous officials.
These four plants have their own seasons, in other words, they represent spring, summer, autumn, and winter respectively. It can also be understood as a metaphor that expresses scholar’s perception of life.
Plum – Winter
Chinese New Year is in winter, we view it as the beginning of a year.
In cold winters, plum is the only plant grows and blooms. When snow makes the world pure white, beautiful red plum flowers are shining and give out fragrance in wind. As a result, its fearless perseverance is admired by people.
When Chinese people fall into difficult situations or harsh environment, they will think about plum to get energy and courage.
Orchid – Spring
In the early spring, there is a custom (or say festival) in China that people will go outside to see how plants start to grow. It’s called Ta Qing in Chinese. (Direct translation would be “Walk on the green grassland”) It is believed that all kinds of plants are alive (or intelligent) and will show their best faces in front of people when this day comes. The orchid is different. It’s elegant and beautiful, but it chooses to grow near river in remote mountain areas. Only humble gentleman will go and find it. And when the real gentleman comes, it will smile (bloom) to show a warm welcome.
Because it’s so noble and never boasts its beauty, it’s believed that orchid is a plant that knows self-discipline and self-cultivation. (I’m not sure whether you know this in traditional Chinese culture. If you talk with a girl and say ‘You are very beautiful.’ She is supposed to answer ‘No, I am not’, because we don’t want to be too proud. Things change in recent years that we accept western way to show confidence about ourselves. So if you say to this me nowadays, I will follow your way to answer ‘Thank you.’ 🙂
Bamboo – Summer
Because storms always come in summer while bamboo grows very fast in these three months, it represents summer.
Chinese people love bamboo for numerous reasons. Besides your understanding of it, there is something I want to add.
• If a person cultivate bamboo in his garden, he is trying to send a message that he determined to become a gentleman sturdy, upright and vigorous, but with humility.
• The Chinese word of joints of the bamboo is Jie, which is the same word of moral integrity. As a result, bamboo also represents ‘living a virtuous life’.
• Its hollow stems are a reminder that there is always room to acquire more knowledge. So bamboo is quoted by scholars to express their passion for study most often.
Chrysanthemum – Autumn
Because it flourishes at autumn when all other flowers get withered one after another, it represents autumn.
In our core culture, there is one important idea.
If you are poor, behave yourself and do what you can to contribute to the society.
If you are rich and powerful, then devote everything you have to build up a good society to all your people and your nation.
In other words, whatever you do, wherever you are, you are required by the culture and ethics to behave appropriately. Chrysanthemum in China can be found in king’s garden as well as ordinary people’s home. But wherever it is, the flower will flourish in late autumn and bring people beautiful view. So it’s appreciated a lot. I remember a saying in English, ‘There is always a tide’, meaning situations may change, but no matter up or down, go for your goals. I think they are similar.
In China, there is one kind of tea is made from the flowers of the chrysanthemum. Besides its a good taste, you can also understand it as people want to get a kind of spirit from drinking the tea.
Since ancient times these four plants are popular objects and topics for which numerous volumes of Chinese poems, odes, essays, and paintings have been made. That also explains why people can often see a Chinese folding fan with the picture of these four plants on the surface. Scholars send them to encourage each other. Friends send them to show respect and good wish. Gradually it’s believed that they will bring good luck and esteem.