The image of the flowering plum has been played a popular role throughout Chinese paintings and poetry. What was the significance of the flowering plum motif during the Southern Song Dynasty (960-1279)? The period of the Song dynasty (960-1279) was particularly noted for its artistic achievements. Although landscape paintings of the Northern Song (960-1127) was predominant during this period, flower painting became equally as important during the Southern Song (1127-1279) where artists tended to focus on a single blossom or flowering branch.
A popular and favorite motif used countless times throughout poetry and paintings alike was the flowering plum. Throughout Chinese history the flowering plum, known as mei or mei hua, has served as an inspiration to Chinese poets and painters alike. However, before the Song dynasty the flowering plum served only as a pictorial motif existing through written records such as “illustrations of narrative poems” and “Buddhist texts. ” It wasn’t until the twelfth century where few documents reveal “figure paintings with flowering plums” which appeared during the Song dynasty- “the formative period of plum-blossom appreciation” (Bickford 45).
By the twelfth century artists and poets alike used the flowering plum in their artworks because the subject of flowers in general brought a “synaesthetic appeal to the senses of sight, smell, and touch” that “offered Chinese poets and painters subjects of most unlimited symbolic and metaphorical potential” (Harrist 53). The Pre-sung literature reveals that there were poems about plum blossoms, while in the Song there is plum poetry and plum paintings; the plum was seen as an independent subject that it was generalized in a category of its own.
Symbolically the plum blossom “denotes courage and hope because it is the first to brave the frosts of winter” (Burling 350). Flowering before all others in the Chinese New Year, when all else is either withered, dead, or in slumber, the plum tree perseveres through all the cold, wind, sleet, and snow, and blooms its delicate white (or red, pink, pale green), fragrant blossoms from its old branches, “marking the first sign of spring” (Bickford 18).
Therefore it is no surprise that Chinese artists made the plum blossom the central figure in their artworks since while it also stood as a symbol of virtue and fortitude, it also served as a powerful Chinese symbol of renewal. Although powerful, its fleeting existence has made it a metaphor for the transience of beauty and life. Such examples were seen through Su Shi’s (1037-1101) poetry during the Song where he personifies the flowering plum tree as a beautiful and delicate woman: “bones of jade and snow,” “souls of ice,” “jade bones,” “ice figure,” “white face,” “flesh of ice, bones of jade,” “pale hands. (Bickford 19). Therefore during the Song, the flowering plum became a favorite in Chinese poetry since its literary associations were derived from its appearance and role in nature and such literary associations were further evolved and transcribed onto hand scrolls and brought to life through the art of ink plum or momei. One of the most famous plum paintings still surviving are left behind by masters such as Ma Yuan (active 1190-1225) and his son Ma Lin (1210-1240).
Ma Yuan’s works were famous even throughout the Song period because “no Song painter knew the flowering plum better than the academic master Ma Yuan” (Bickford 46). Ma Yuan was able to portray the blossoms in all its various states and surroundings whether it be “lush or sparse, in the rich man’s garden or in the hermit’s grove” (Bickford 46). Many of Ma Yuan’s paintings were derived from poetic elements. In one of his most noteworthy and still surviving artwork is the Moments of the Flowering Plum painting sequence (Figs. a-f) where the leaves of the plum tree are intensely focused, while at the same time capturing the structure and moods of the flowering plum, “graphic black branchwork, pale color washes, and touches of opaque pigment” (Bickford 46). He selectively and carefully chose his imaging of the flowering plums to depict the flowers moment in nature as if the flow of time was stalled simply for that particular image. In the first of the set of the sequence of the “moment” paintings (Fig. 5a, f), the plum blossoms here harbor a glow from the “rosy sunset” warming the background behind the blossoms, “finely painted water flows below. The branches are “dotted with the palest green,” while a “fine moon” is depicted as a gold disk floating in the background of the “blue-wash sky. ”
In stark contrast to these paintings which capture the warmth and tenderness of springtime, there are also wintry images of old plums (Fig. 5e). In this painting these old plums are near “a clear stream” and “beside bamboo. ” The delicate brushstrokes of the branchwork cave off in “vigorous black contours” and “big bold forms of tough old tree trunks and boulders covered with snow” (Bickford 46). In between the extremes of spring and wintertime epicted by the first and the last of the sequence, there are eight other “moments” ranging from the plum blossoms in “fine rain” and “gentle shade” (Fig. 5b) to those of “light mist” and “slight chill” (Fig. 5d), and “rare birds” and “light snow” (Fig. 5c). Ma Yuan creates the perfect sequence of moments by simply manipulating the dark or pale inks used, soft or cutting brushwork, and most importantly by carefully modulating the washes in the background from “warm blushes to clear sky-blues, to chilly gray, and to leaden metallic backgrounds” (Bickford 46).
Ma Yuan also captured the verbatim words of Southern Song poet Yang Wanli, “The flowering plum in the grove is like a recluse full of spirit of open space, free from the spirit of worldly dust,” (Bickford 49) onto silk canvas in his painting Plum Blossom by Moonlight. In this painting he “stripped” the flowering plum from its “soft sentimentality” and “exposed a tough structure. ” The tree is tough, old, and gnarled, the usual setting of soft delicate gardens transformed into the rugged and rocky terrains of the enduring mountains. The visual image created by Ma Yuan corresponded so well with the words of the recluse poet.
Another one of Ma Yuan’s paintings is Enjoying Plum Blossoms, which depicts how the Song scholars spent their pastime- in search of plum blossoms along the river. The terrain in this painting is bit less rugged and the scholars glide under the outspread plum blossom tree across the lake in a boat. In both these paintings the plum blossoms play a central figure as they overshadow the scholars in detail, depth, size, and height, bringing all attention to the tree and its flowering blossoms. In his A Gentleman in His Garden painting, it shows a scholar strolling through his garden amongst the blossoming plum trees.
It can be seen from the painting that two stools have been set near the stream under the shadows of the plum blossom tree so that they may enjoy the view of the blossoms or simply reflect or meditate amongst themselves in near the stream. The atmosphere created by Ma Yuan is cool and peaceful. A common theme associated with the motif of plum blossoms. One of Ma Yuan’s most remembered and referred to work is his Scholars Conversing beneath Flowering Plum (Fig. 12) where two scholars sit under an outspread plum tree facing each other with a serving boy at the left.
The scholars are surrounded by sparse landscape setting with “a level bank with some rocks and fine grasses, and round hills rising in the distance” (Bickford 52). Although the meaning of the images is yet unclear, this painting captures an essence in time where almost everything seems to be at peace. Ma Lin’s Layer on Layer of Icy Thin Silk painting holds the “quintessential Song image of the flowering plum” in its most elegant and beautified state, contrasting from his father, Ma Yuan’s paintings, where he captured the blossom’s state as-is according to its natural state in nature, whether it be sparse or rustic.
In Layer on Layer of Icy Thin Silk, Ma Lin whittles the painting down to the very core, filtering out picturesque and atmospheric elements of “twisted trunks and boughs, no evocations of moonlight, mist, and snow,” with only “two spiky branches covered with luminous white blossoms” in view. What is even more interesting of this painting is the inscription by Yang Mei-tzu (1162-1232) a consort of Emperor Sung Li-tsung, who collaborated with Ma Lin on the painting. The translated inscription gives a clue to both the meaning of the painting and the poem:
Like a chilled butterfly resting in the corolla, Embracing the rouge heart, remembering former fragrance Blossoming to the tip of the cold branch, it is most lovable: This must be the makeup that adorned the Han palace. From a poetic’s point of view who understands the flowering plum theme may already be able to decode the title of the painting Layer on Layer of Icy Thin Silk, and an image. The “icy thin silk” refers to the white plum blossoms themselves, which in their “delicacy and fragrance symbolize a lady’s beauty” (Harrist 59).
The first line of the inscription, which can be literally translated to “floral chambers” (hwa-fang) directly relates to the “yin-yang combination that hints at the union of male and female lovers,” while the “rouge heart” (t’an-hsin) refers to the central being of the flower itself. This metaphoric connection between the flower and the woman is further strengthened because t’an appears in other contexts with k’ou, translated to “mouth,” which refers to the lady’sr ed painted lips. The last line, “makeup that adorned the Han palace” (Han-kung Chuang) is a “metonymic expression for a palace lady” (Harrist 59).
Han may refer to any imperial palace in any dynasty and chuang stands for the make-up worn by the woman. When all analysis is put together we can deduce from the Yang Mei-tzu’s inscription that the voice heard throughout the poem is that of a male lover who recalls nostalgically a past amorous encounter as he comes upon the flowering plum blossoms. The painting corresponds to the inscription almost to the point as if the viewer too is experiencing what the male lover went through. The viewer is able to see through the eyes of the male lover of what the blossoms looked like.
Like his father was able to capture the sequence of the blooming plum blossoms through his sequential paintings, Ma Lin was able to hold on to a “moment of time,” by transferring and preserving the perfect moment of the flowering forever onto silk. “The swelling buds will never break, the open blossoms will never rot; there is no trace of falling petals in Ma Lin’s timeless world” (Bickford 56). Later painters could not even match up to Ma Lin’s or the academic masters of the Southern Song’s brilliance and keen observation.
Though we can deduce from the paintings something about their life and career of both Ma Yuan and Ma Lin, their personalities remain anonymous. However their paintings are institutional artworks and living historical picture books that depicted the deep infatuation of flowering plums that the Song dynasty had evident throughout thousands of paintings and poetry. The significance of the flowering plum during the Southern Song was so crucial that without it, most of the Song dynasty’s literary works and paintings might not exist today.
The history of or what might have interested the Song dynasty may never have been known if painters like Ma Yuan and Ma Lin decided not to be interested by the subject of flowering plums. Also as easily as the flowering plum had stolen the hearts of the people of Southern Song and laid rest its legacy in literature, decorative landscape arts, and paintings, “so too did the fascination with the blossoms cross lines of economic and social class” (Bickford 43).
The flowering plum was to be seen in courtyards of imperial courts, blooming by lakesides where reclusive poets resided, or in the mountains where the hermits and priests roamed. It flourished unattended, untouched by humans, carrying its symbol of fortitude and renewal, in the hills along waterways of southern China. Its legacy lives on still today and the flowering plum blossom is still known to be one of the Chinese favorite blossoms.
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