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The '' Four Gentlemen ''
The Four Gentlemen (四君子), also called the Four Noble Ones, in Chinese art refer to four plants: the plum (梅), the orchid (蘭), the bamboo (竹), and the chrysanthemum (菊). The term matches the four plants with junzi, or "gentlemen" in Confucianism. They are common subjects in traditional ink and wash painting, belonging to the category of bird-and-flower painting in Chinese art.
The Four Gentlemen have been depicted in Chinese painting for more than a thousand years because of their refined beauty, as well as the moral characters with which the Chinese literati have imbued them.
The stalk of the bamboo is hollow, which came to symbolize tolerance and open-mindedness. Furthermore, the flexibility and strength of the bamboo stalk also came to represent the human values of cultivation and integrity in which one yields but does not break.
Along with the pine and the plum, the bamboo is a member of the “Three Friends of Winter (歲寒三友).” It is also one of the “Four Gentlemen (四君子)”, together with the plum, the orchid, and the chrysanthemum.
The orchid represents the spring. The beauty and grace of the orchid is fragile in form, with no violent tendencies. Like the plum blossom, its fragrance is never overpowering, symbolizing humility and nobility.
One of the most beloved flowers in China, the plum blossoms (méi-huā, 梅花) have been frequently depicted in Chinese painting and poetry for centuries. The Chinese see its blossoms as both a symbol of winter as well as a harbinger of spring. It is precisely for this reason that the blossoms are so beloved, as they bloom most vibrantly amidst the winter snow, after most other plants have shed their leaves, and before other flowers appear. They are seen as an example of resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity.
Though neither the plum tree nor its blossoms are very striking, they manage to exude an otherworldly exquisiteness and beautiful elegance. The demeanor and character of the plum tree thereby serves as a metaphor for inner beauty and humble display under adverse conditions.
Because they blossom in winter, the plum blossom is a member of the “Three Friends of Winter (歲寒三友)”, along with the pine and the bamboo. The plum blossom is also a member of the “Four Gentlemen (四君子)” in Chinese art (the others being orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum), symbolizing nobility. In China, there are over 300 recorded cultivars of mei, which can be broadly divided by color into white, pink, red, purple, and light green types.
The chrysanthemum blooms in the cold autumn air and foretells the coming of winter, which symbolizes the virtue to withstand all adversities. It was the favorite flower of the great poet Tao Yuanming (陶淵明, 365-427), a towering figure in Chinese literati culture.