Human Flower Project

Flowering Plum

On naked branches, blossoms of prunus mume open with the New Year in China.

imageScroll painting

by Cheng, Tiesheng


“The scent of plum blossoms comes from surviving the bitter cold.”

With this ancient reflection on endurance we greet the Lunar New Year. Thank you, Cheng, Tiesheng (程铁生). Mr. Cheng, a lifelong student of calligraphy, was also a teacher, forcibly retired in the 1950s for his criticism of the Chinese govenment. His beautiful calligraphic scroll, a cherished gift sent to us by his son Wei and daughter-in-law Ying, bring the joy of China’s snowy Spring Festival to the subtropics of Central Texas.

Though the lunar New Year is adorned with many plants (pussy willow, narcissus, and, in Vietnam, bong mai), the delicate five-petalled blossoms of plum are Northern China’s exquisite emblem of beginning.

Translated into English as “plum blossom,” China’s New Year’s branch is actually Prunus mume, a species closer to apricot. The trees bloom in late January/early February, coinciding with the Lunar New Year, appearing on bare branches before any leaves have sprouted. Wei writes, “Plum blossom does not crowd the spring time with all the other flowers to catch people’s attention but enjoys its own efflorescence lonely in the winter. The poets of old time took it as a symbol of pride, noble self-esteem, and perseverence for that cause.”

In Chinese culture, flowering plum has been a touchstone through sixteen centuries of music, as well as painting.

The plum blossom was also central to a complex, numerical system of divination, the “Plum Blossom Number of Changes” developed during the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) by Shao Yong. Similarly, but more simply, branches of prunus mume in bloom today will be read as good luck signs for the coming year.

imageGarden, Husan Hill

Photo: China Planner

Scholar and artist Lin Bu lived on Gushan surrounded by only his brushes, books, domesticated birds and trees.

The older the plum tree, the more ascetic it becomes.

At the mountain tower by the river inn is a man, wretched and poor.

Purity becomes complete when the cold fills every crevice,

And only now do I know that we were once the bright moon.

As they observed Lin Bu in concentration and solitude, “The people said the flowering plum was his wife and cranes his children” thus did the flowering plum come to signify “chosen seclusion and moral pre-eminence.”

Through the centuries, Chinese artists and authors of myriad beliefs have tried to make the plum blossom their own. To claim the meihua is somehow to wear armor and a halo simultaneously. Mao Zedong wrote his “Plum Blossom Hymn”; more recently, a documentary film entitled Plum Blossoms in the Snow describes China’s embattled Falun Gong minority.

imagePrunus mume in bloom

Photo: Wikipedia

Moving from the symbolic to the literal, we’ve learned of a lovely plum tree garden on Hushan Hill in Wuxi, and the City of Guangfu, famous since the Han Dynasty for its plum orchards, renowned throughout China as a “sea of fragrant snow.”

Who can fathom the flowering plum—or any other flower? We hope, in the spirit of the new year, only to begin. With tact and kindness, our friend Wei writes, “The scent of plum blossom is not strong. You can actually barely smell it. But this poem is not really about the scent as you may have seen….”

Wei has also provided further information on the smaller verses that frame the plum blossom poem.

“Those first two sentences of smaller characters were from an article of Zhu Ge Liang. The article was written to advise his son how to be a noble man with high attainment. Also here is the full text in Chinese.

I can not find a good translation of those couplets. It is always hard to convey the same meaning of them without losing the beauty of rhyme and artistic conception. But word for word, it is saying: “Only continuous learning can widen your wisdom and sights; Great achievement only comes from deep commitment.”

The last two sentences of the smaller characters were quoted from another article written by an ancient legalism philosopher, Xun Zi (荀子), who lived around 300 B.C.

Here is the full text of the article.

This couplet actually comes after another couplet. The complete couplet set is:

锲而舍之,朽木不折; 锲而不舍,金石可镂

It means, word for word, “Carve and give up, rotten wood will not give; Carve and never give up, even metal and stone can be incised.” 

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/29 at 02:45 PM


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