The symbolism in flowers is many and varied, and each flower has its own entry in this survey of symbols. The Chinese have kept attractive gardens from early times, and courtyard homes had a small garden at its heart. Early Spring blossom was particularly valued and decorated houses for the Spring Festival. The character for flower 花 huā has an interesting origin. As a plant ‘magically’ transform from producing green leaves into producing flowers the character uses a head over heels representation to show this metamorphosis under the radical for ‘plant’.
The twelfth day of the second lunar month is a minor festival to celebrate Spring and the emergence of leaves and flowers. It is dedicated to the goddess of flowers 百花深 Bǎi huā shēn. For a long while it was the custom of women to wear a garland of flowers in their hair although white and blue flowers are unlucky and avoided. Flowers have long been associated with girls and young women, and a picture of a flower may represent one. A prostitute was often referred to euphemistically as a flower.
Particular flowers are often depicted with a specific bird because they have the same symbolic meaning, so a crane and a pine tree both represent longevity. The four friends of the flowers are the swallow; oriole; bee and butterfly. While the three friends of winter are the pine; bamboo and plum blossom.
A basket of flowers is the emblem of Lan Caihe 蓝采和, one of the Eight Daoist Immortals. Each month is associated with a flower but the list varies from place to place. Here is a typical list of months: plum; apricot; peony; cherry; magnolia; pomegranate; lotus; pear; cassia; chrysanthemum; gardenia and poppy. (Note these follow the traditional Chinese lunar months starting at Chinese New Year not January). There is also a seasonal association too, the four virtuous plants 四君子 sì jūn zǐ are orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum and plum representing respectively Spring; Summer; Autumn and Winter. These are also the set of four ‘flower tiles’ in Mahjong.
After the flowers comes the fruit. For many of the plants in Chinese symbolism it is the fruit rather than the flowers that are portrayed in artwork. So in this section we also include such things as apples, aubergines, oranges, peaches, pomegranates and walnuts.
Here is a list of flowers and fruit that are noted for their symbolism in Chinese art:
Older varieties of apple prefer a cooler, moister climate than is available in China so apples used to be imported from Korea and Japan and so they were considered an exotic luxury. Wild Chinese apple trees in Northern China (Malus spectabilis) 海棠 hǎi táng do not produce sweet fruit but were admired for their blossom in spring. The similar sounding 堂 táng means ‘hall’, so a picture of apple blossom can represent the home in a painting.
Wild apple blossom may represent female beauty, possibly from the celebrated Yang Guifei being termed the 海棠女 hǎi táng nǚ ‘Paradise-apple maiden’ . It sounds the same as 平 píng ‘peace, calm’ so an apple is associated with a wish for peace. Together with a persimmon 柿 shì wishes success in business affairs 事 shì
Apricots represent the second month in the traditional calendar as that is when they are in flower. Apricots and the closely related almond represent female elegance, perhaps because the large seed is ovoid shaped like the eyes of an Oriental beauty. A red apricot represents a woman having an affair. Sometimes it is painted together with Imperial women to express the wish for fortitude in sorrows.
A field of apricots may represent success in examinations as celebrations were said to take place in an apricot grove.
The eggplant or aubergine is used to symbolize an official because of the shape of the attachment to the stem looks like the hat of an official. More crudely its shape may bring to mind the penis.
Because qié zi sounds like ‘cheese’ it is used to encourage people to smile when taking a photograph.
Some wild azaleas have a red blotch on the flower which has led to them being called ‘cuckoo flowers’ in Sichuan because the local cuckoo has a red throat. In Europe, the cuckoo flower ➚ is a completely different species (Cardamine pratensis) that flowers at the time that cuckoos arrive from Africa. The stamens have been collected and used as a mild narcotic. Whole mountains are covered with azaleas in China making them a magnificent sight when in flower. It is often used to symbolize female beauty in painting. In association with butterflies, azaleas suggest creative ability in art.
Bamboo is such an important plant in China that we have written an extended section all about bamboo. Bamboo is used for every conceivable purpose from scaffolding to food and firecrackers to paper. Bamboo in art symbolizes longevity and steadfastness as it is both long lived and evergreen. As the stem (culm) is hollow and its leaves droop it represents modesty: (虚 xū means both modest and hollow). As an evergreen it is, together with pines and plums, regarded as one of the three friends of winter. It is supple, graceful and useful making it a suitable paragon of virtue for both Confucians and Daoists.
The character for laughter uses the radical for bamboo suggested by the rocking and rustling of bamboo. Bamboo explodes, noisily, when burnt and so was traditionally used as the casing for fire crackers. Bamboo is also one of the 'suits' in Mahjong. The character to express good wishes 祝 zhù sounds similar and so bamboo is used figuratively to wish for peace and happiness. Together with plums it may represent husband and wife in a painting. Some painters have dedicated their lives to only painting bamboo, it is such an quintessential motif in China.
A basket of fruit symbolizes the Chinese Daoist immortal Lan Caihe. Lan Caihe is portrayed as a woman or a hermaphrodite and plays heavenly music. The basket symbolizes riches and is popular as a wish for good luck at the Spring Festival.
Beans are a major source of protein for the many vegetarians in China. The beans are processed into bean curd 豆腐花 dòu fǔ huā or 豆花 dòu huā; it is from Japan that we have the name ‘tofu’. The dried beans mixed with water make a milk like liquid (soy milk 豆浆, dòu jiāng) and this is then left to coagulate into soft bean curd blocks. “Eating bean curd” is sometimes used as a euphemism for making love.
The large, tough fruit of the plant ‘Lagenaria siceraria’, when dried and hollowed out makes a tough water-tight container. This cheap and useful gourd was used as a water container from ancient times in China (especially southern China where the plant grows best). It has also been used as a buoyancy aid for children. It formed an emblematic feature of the wandering Daoist adept to store his magic potions. Hù 护 sounds the same and means ‘protect’ while 祜 hù means ‘blessing’. In legend, a Daoist master could be trapped in a gourd and later emerge just like the story of the genie and the magic lamp. By association a picture of a gourd fends off evil influences.
The gourds are often painted, usually with flowers and leaves to match the organic shape of the gourd. A gourd is associated with one of the Eight Immortals Li Tie Guai 李铁拐 with wisps of white smoke emanating from the gourd indicating its contents - a magic potion. In a picture large 瓜 guā and small gourds 瓞 dié together with 蔓 màn ‘creeper’ (sounding like 万 wàn ‘numerous’) represent a wish for numerous descendents 瓜瓞绵绵
Cabbage as (白菜 bái cài ‘Chinese cabbage’) or 青菜 qīng cài ‘green cabbage’ has a lucky connotation because 财 cái means‘wealth, money’.
The cherry tree grows in central and northern China, the wild species were fairly bitter in taste and so were used more as a medicine than a sweet fruit. Its name in Chinese means ‘baby peach’. A color of a woman’s lips are often likened to a cherry and in general is associated with the beauty of youth. The phrase ‘eating cherries’ has to be used with care as it is a euphemism for making love.
The chrysanthemum is a much loved flower in China and is often portrayed in pictures. It is a symbol of joy and a wish for peaceful retirement. It sounds similar to 居 jū ‘to reside, to endure’ and久 jiǔ ‘long time’. The pine and chrysanthemum together emphasize the wish for a long life as in 松菊犹存 sōng jú yóu cún. A picture of a chrysanthemum with nine quails symbolizes a wish for nine generations to live in peace in the home 九世同居 jiǔ shì tóng jū. The plant represents autumn and so contrasts with the plum which is the flower of spring.
There are many varieties of chrysanthemum in a great range of colors. Its importance can be judged by the fact that the ninth month in the traditional calendar is named the ‘chrysanthemum month’. The petals can be used to make a herbal tea and the petals are also used to flavor wine. The influence of the chrysanthemum spread to Japan, and the Emperor of Japan's throne is known as the Chrysanthemum Throne ➚.
The cinnamon or cassia spice tree is native to southern China. Its aromatic bark has been used in cooking for thousands of years.
The city of Guilin 桂林 in Guangxi is named after the many osmanthus trees that have been planted there. Osmanthus flowers give a fine fragrance which is given the same character as cassia. The osmanthus blossoms in the 8th lunar month so the month was called 桂月 guì yuè. When depicted with the plum which flowers in Spring it denotes a wish for never ending fragrance meaning a long life of honor. With pomegranate and gourds it gives the wish for many successful sons. It sounds the same as 贵 guì ‘expensive, noble, valuable’ and so the fine scent became associated with passing the Imperial examinations . The inscription 桂子兰孙 guì zǐ lán sūn expresses a wish for noble sons and grandsons.
It is a fast growing tree and there is a legend that there was a giant cinnamon tree which grew so fast that its owner could never keep it in trim. There is also a legend that the moon has a magical cassia tree which generates a drug giving immortality.
A creeping plant often with tendrils is sometimes used in paintings to symbolize immortality. This is because 蔓 màn sounds a bit like 万 wàn ‘10,000; myriad; forever’. If the picture shows roots (柢 dǐ) of a tree this symbolizes numerous generations (代 dài).
Cypress trees live to a great age. They are often planted near burial grounds, and so have a similar association to that of yew trees ➚ in Europe.
A cypress symbolizes longevity and can also symbolize ‘a hundred’ as it sounds the same as 百 bǎi as in the wish ‘may you have a hundred sons’. In some dialects it is pronounced bo which is the same as 伯 bó which means ‘earl, count’ and so may also symbolize a wish to attain a peerage.
The finger lemon is a small citrus tree (Citrus medica) that bears a strange fruit with finger-like protrusions. It has been called ‘Buddha's hand’ (佛手 fó shǒu) or ‘Finger lemon’. It is rarely eaten in China, but instead hung up to give a fresh, citrus fragrance to a room. Symbolically it expresses a wish for a happy and long life from the similarity in sound to 福寿 fú shòu. In this regard it may be shown along side of a butterfly to express a wish for a long and happy retirement.
Like the mandrake ➚ in Europe, ginseng has been associated with magical powers because its root is shaped like a child (and hence the use of 人 rén ‘person’ in its name). It was also believed that it cried when harvested. From its coincidental shape it has been used as a powerful magic ingredient. It is now a well-known health tonic, it was originally found in Shanxi, but now comes mainly from Jilin province and Korea.
The jujube tree (sometimes called the Chinese date tree) bears succulent fruit. Because the sound zǎo is the same as in 早 zǎo ‘early’ a picture of a jujube portrays the wish for ‘soon’. If combined with a lychee in a picture this can be taken to mean a wish for children to be born soon; or if combined with a cinnamon tree a desire for rapid promotion to high office.
The species of lily most prized in China is the ‘day lily’ (Hemerocallis ➚) which has blooms that only lasts one day. The transitory nature of the flowers is said to help you forget your troubles. Its rapid sequence of flowers makes it a symbol for childbearing and is therefore a suitable gift for a newly wed. The grace and beauty are associated with foot binding as an Emperor extolled the virtue of the minute feet in terms of ‘wherever she steps a lily flowers’ and so bound feet became termed ‘golden lilies’.
Irises are also called 百合 bǎi hé were considered good for keeping evil at bay particularly at the Dragon boat festival where they were used to decorate doorways.
The lotus is a much revered and used motif in Chinese art. Its symbolism comes from Buddhism, it is a plant that grows in the stinking mud of marshes and yet produces pure white blossoms, so it symbolizes transformation from evil to the good and pure. It directly symbolizes summer and fruitfulness. The lotus is also known as 莲 lián in Chinese and homophones to lian give it symbolic meanings: 廉 lián ‘incorruptible, modest’; 连 lián ‘join; continuous; successive’; 联 lián ‘unite; join’. Another name for the lotus hé brings other associations through the homophones 和 hé ‘harmony; union’ so two lotus flowers symbolize total marital harmony. There are many other associations: one of the eight immortals He Xiangu holds a flower; one of the Heavenly twins (He-he) also holds one; a lotus with a goldfish it symbolizes the wish for an abundance of gold; with a duck a wish for happiness; with a heron a desire for progression... the list is almost endless. Like the lily, the lotus has been associated with bound feet to express their beauty.
It belongs to its own botanic family Nelumbonaceae ➚ separate from the somewhat similar water lily. All parts of the plants have their own name and usage; the fruits and leaves as food; the seeds as medicine. The wheel-like form of its flower symbolizes the wheel of life.
The most well known Buddhist mantra ‘Om mani padme hum’ 唵嘛呢叭咪吽 ǎn ma ní bā mī hōng can be very roughly transliterated as “May I become like the jewel of the Lotus. Amen” 叭咪 bā mī ‘padme’ is the Tibetan name for lotus. The Buddha is said to have contemplated a bank of lotus plants; some mired in mud; some in bud; some below water. He saw the plants as representing the people he wished to bring to flower in the full purity of mind. The Lotus Position ➚ (padmāsana) is a compact cross-legged position for meditation inspired by the overall structure of the lotus.
The magnolia is a much loved flower in China. Over the centuries varieties have been selectively bred for early flowering, bloom size and color. An early flowering variety is called 欢春花 huān chūn huā ‘the flower that welcomes the Spring’. Legend has it that at one time only the Emperor himself and his closest favorites were allowed to grow the shrub.
Like the peony it symbolizes female beauty. In an illustration a magnolia 玉兰花 yù lán huā together with a crab apple 海棠 hǎi táng and peony give 玉堂富贵 yù táng fù guì meaning a wish for wealth and honor as ‘Jade Hall’ (yutang) was the academy of scholars. In a painting with bees a magnolia gives the meaning of self-esteem. The bark of the plant is used in traditional medicine.
The name 木兰 Mù lán is most associated with a warrior-maiden who took to the military to save her father from forced service some time in the Period of Disunity; she served many years and rose to a high rank and the whole time her true gender went undiscovered. The story was made into a successful Disney animated film 'Mulan ➚'.
In a typical ‘sounds like’ allusion 枫 fēng a maple in a picture confers the wish for an appointment because of 封 fēng ‘grant, confer’. The idea of a wish for appointment to a good job can be expressed by a monkey seeking a package in a maple tree, where the package represents the seal of office.
The hollow trunk of the mulberry tree 浮桑 fú sāng was considered the resting place of the sun and rulers; as such it was regarded as the place where the sun rises each day.
Mulberry trees are very widely planted in China because they are the food plant of the silkworm. They were considered unlucky if placed in front of a house because 桑 sāng sounds like 丧 sàng which means loss, defeat and death.
As it sprouts and flowers each year in Spring the Narcissus is called literally a ‘water immortal’ and in a painting may symbolize the immortals and good fortune. Stones, bamboo and narcissii together give the wish ‘may the immortals grant a wish for a long life’. The flowering time is just right for the New Year festival. Families force it to flower early by growing it in a pot in the home with water and pebbles. It is particularly treasured in Fujian province.
Opium was used as a medicine for centuries before it became a problem in China. It was when it was smoked that it caused huge problems with addiction. Opium poppies were grown in the south west of China.
Originally it was not illegal to buy opium, but there was a ban on importing the drug into China. The British inherited an opium production area in northern India and opium trade with China when they conquered India. This opium was purer and cheaper than that produced in China and began to be illegally imported. It was the middle ranking officials who seem to have suffered most from addiction and this brought the whole Imperial administration to inaction.
Oranges are grown in southern China and were popular presents for children. The character 桔 jú is made up of the radical 木 mù ‘wood’ and 吉 jí ‘lucky’. Also ju sounds close to 祝 zhù ‘to wish’ so it symbolizes a wish for good fortune. Lots of oranges and tangerines are consumed at the New Year festival. A tribute of oranges used to be sent from Fujian province to Beijing in time for the Spring festivities. Orange peel is considered an effective medicine.
The boy Lu ji is put forward as an example of filial piety because when he was given some oranges instead of eating them himself he gave them to his mother. A boy shooting an arrow at three oranges indicates a wish for him to come first (hit the target) in all three levels of examination, here the orange is just a symbol for a circle 圆 yuán to form 连中三元 lián zhòng sān yuán.
The orchid and particularly its fragrance is associated with female beauty, it stands for modesty and refinement. There are very many different types of wild orchid in China which are highly prized. Lan is a popular girl's name.
The orchid was even praised by Confucius as an emblem of the perfect man. According to the Yi Jing ‘marital sharpness is broken when they are in harmony, the words of harmony are as fragrant as orchids’.
Peaches are one of the most common of art motifs. The most famous association is with the peaches of immortality that grow in the gardens of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu). These trees bore fruit only once every three thousand years. The god of longevity is often portrayed emerging from a peach. The monkey king stole some fruit causing consternation in heaven and required the intervention of the Jade Emperor according to the Journey to the West.
Peach trees are grown throughout China and many parts of the plant are used in traditional medicine. The timber is supposed to keep away demons and branches were placed at the entrance to houses at New Year for this purpose.
Just as in Europe, spring is a favorite time for marriages and as this is the time of peach blossom, peaches are associated with marriage. The fresh complexion of a girl is likened to the blush of a peach.
Pears are a long lived fruit tree, as they can survive for 350 years, and so they symbolize a wish for a long life. However unlike most other fruits the pear has a unfortunate homophone as 离 lí means ‘separate; divide’ so it should not be given as a present to a couple.
For the same reason it is inappropriate at the Hungry Ghost Festival as that would indicate separation from the spirit of the ancestors. Pear blossom with raindrops is considered one of the most beautiful sights and so is associated with a beautiful girl. Parts of the plant are used as medicine for fever and diarrhea.
The peony is one of the most loved flowers in China. It became mudan after centuries of being known as 芍药 sháo yào possibly due to the appearance of a red variety (dan is one word for 'red'). White peonies 白牡丹 bái mǔ dān represent talented young girls with wit as well as beauty. A peony symbolizes, as many flowers do, a young girl. ‘The Peony Pavilion’ 牡丹亭 mǔ dan tíng is a very famous Kunqu Opera 昆曲 about young love. The peony has a double flower and that has led to a hidden meaning of a wish for repeated riches.
The flower was much admired in the works of the great Tang poets. On occasions it is considered the flower of Spring and competes with the lotus; chrysanthemum and plum for supremacy; with these three together, the peony represents the whole year. A legend has it that Empress Wu Zetian ordered all flowers to bloom and when the peony disobeyed she had it dug up and burned. The health of a garden peony was thought to presage that of its owning family, if it should fall sick it was an ill omen. In combination with other symbols such as the phoenix, pheasant and peacock a peony represents a good reputation .
The persimmon is grown for its large juicy fruits and is often called the ‘Chinese fig’. It grows well on mountain slopes in northern China. The fruits are orange and shaped like beef tomatoes. The bright orange/red color makes it suitable for festive decorations.
As 事 shì ‘matter; business; affair’ sounds the same it is often used symbolically to combine with other objects to give good wishes for an undertaking. With oranges (tangerines) it means ‘good luck in your affairs’ with an apple it means ‘contentment in affairs’. It is often planted in temple gardens as it is said to have four virtues: long life; sheltering birds; giving shade and freedom from insect pests.
The pine tree is one of the three friends of winter - together with plums and bamboo because it is evergreen and does not drop its needles. It is a favorite subject in Chinese landscape paintings. It symbolizes longevity, solitude and steadfastness; as the needles grow in pairs it is also a symbol of married bliss.
Pine trees are commonly planted around graveyards (see also cypresses) perhaps due to the association of longevity or may be due to a legend that the graveyard demons 罔象 wǎngxiàng are kept away by them. Bunge's pine ➚ 白皮松 bái pí sōng is widely grown as an ornamental pine tree in parks and gardens.
松籁 Sōng lài or 松涛 sōng tāo is the music of pine trees as the wind soughs through its needles and branches and is much loved by the poets. A pine tree at the foot of the sacred Mount Taishan, Shandong was granted an official's title by the first Qin Emperor Shihuangdi - the ‘Welcoming-Guest Pine’, but it has been replaced a number of times over the succeeding centuries.
The welcome blossoms of plum trees in late winter has made the plum tree a popular plant. It is one of the three friends of winter with the bamboo and the pine tree. It is also widely known by the character 李 lǐ which is made up of two elements ‘wood’ and ‘child’ suggesting the prolific fruits produced by the tree. 桃李 Táo lǐ peach and ‘plum’ is a phrase to refer to school children.
Because the flowers emerge before the leaves and it takes a long time to come into flower it is associated with longevity. It is often shown with a crane, another symbol of longevity. As the Chinese Spring Festival may fall as late as early February, it flowers at the end of the Chinese season of winter.
The Daoist philosopher Laozi is said to have been born beneath a plum tree. It has been a popular subject for poetry for centuries. The five petals of the flower represent many of the ‘fives’ in Chinese symbolism including the five gods of prosperity; five good fortunes; five good luck gods etc..
The pomegranate fruit is brim full of seeds, and as seed in Chinese 子 zǐ also means children, it chiefly symbolizes a wish for many children. This can be emphasized by portraying children with pomegranates in a picture. It is an appropriate as a marriage gift with the inscription 榴开百子 liú kāi bǎi zǐ ‘the pomegranate brings forth a hundred seeds/sons’. It sounds the same as 十六 shí liù ‘sixteen’ and so is also associated with commemorating a sixteenth birthday. In symbolism a pomegranate may also represent a wish for a title to be continued into the next generation as 世 shì means ‘generation; noble’.
In Europe the rose is one of the most frequently seen motifs and often represents love with its bloom, fragrance and thorns. Not so much in China, despite the fact that many species of rose planted in Europe and America originate from China. It may symbolize youth and together with bees, sweetness, but more commonly will be seen on goods destined for export.
The walnut may have come to China quite late, the term 胡 hú probably relates to people to the north of China who introduced the tree after the Han dynasty. 胡桃 Hú táo also means ‘flirt’ because of a story of a couple who were estranged for a long while, when the husband (named Hu) returned he flirted with his own wife as he failed to recognize her. So a walnut has come to symbolize a flirtation.
The widespread willow is a very useful tree. It provides material for all sorts of purposes including baskets, ropes and firewood. It is associated with Spring and therefore also with romance. The grace of a willow tree is often compared to the meekness and charm of a young woman. In combination with a swallow it symbolizes artistic ability. Willow is supposed to keep evil spirits at bay and is often seen at the Qing Ming festival for this reason.
The famous willow pattern on porcelain widely exported to Europe immortalizes the tale of young love. A poor young man falls in love with the daughter of his rich employer. Many of the elements in the willow pattern design relate to incidents in the story. A willow tree is featured prominently and hence the name.
When people left home they were often given willow twigs as a parting gift as li sounds the same as 离 lí ‘to part’. Willow will sprout readily from cuttings and so a tree could be planted to give a continual reminder of home.
There are several trees given the general term 同 tòng including the Parasol tree (Firmiana simplex ➚) and Paulownia imperialis ➚. Because tong also means ‘shared, joint, together’ the tree is an emblem to wish for a shared and peaceful life. A magpie 喜鹊 xǐ què in a wutong tree symbolizes ‘joy together’ 禧同 xǐtóng
Paulownia imperialis produces an oil that is very useful for preserving wood - hence its English name. Its wood makes excellent guqin instruments. The tree is associated with the phoenix and yin, as the phoenix is such an auspicious creature wutong trees were planted in the hope it may attract one to land on it.
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