The plum blossom, which is known as the meihua (梅花), is one of the most beloved flowers in China and has been frequently depicted in Chinese art and poetry for centuries. The plum blossom is seen as a symbol of winter and a harbinger of spring. The blossoms are so beloved because they are viewed as blooming most vibrantly amidst the winter snow, exuding an ethereal elegance, while their fragrance is noticed to still subtly pervade the air at even the coldest times of the year. Therefore the plum blossom came to symbolize perseverance and hope, but also beauty, purity, and the transitoriness of life. In Confucianism, the plum blossom stands for the principles and values of virtue. More recently, it has also been used as a metaphor to symbolize revolutionary struggle since the turn of the 20th century.
Because it blossoms in the cold winter, the plum blossom is regarded as one of the "Three Friends of Winter", along with pine, and bamboo. The plum blossom is also regarded as one of the "Four Gentlemen" of flowers in Chinese art together with the orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo. It is one of the "Flowers of the Four Seasons", which consist of the orchid (spring), the lotus (summer), the chrysanthemum (autumn) and the plum blossom (winter). These groupings are seen repeatedly in the Chinese aesthetic of art, painting, literature, and garden design.
An example of the plum blossom's literary significance is found in the life and work of poet Lin Bu (林逋) of the Song Dynasty (960–1279). For much of his later life, Lin Bu lived in quiet reclusion on a cottage by West Lake in Hangzhou, China. According to stories, he loved plum blossoms and cranes so much that he considered the plum blossom of Solitary Hill at West Lake as his wife and the cranes of the lake as his children, thus he could live peacefully in solitude. One of his most famous poems is "Little Plum Blossom of Hill Garden" (山園小梅). The original Chinese text as well as a translation follows:
When everything has faded they alone shine forth,
encroaching on the charms of smaller gardens.
Their scattered shadows fall lightly on clear water,
their subtle scent pervades the moonlit dusk.
Snowbirds look again before they land,
butterflies would faint if they but knew.
Thankfully I can flirt in whispered verse,
I don't need a sounding board or winecup.
As with the literary culture amongst the educated of the time, Lin Bu's poems were discussed in several Song Dynasty era commentaries on poetry. Wang Junqing remarked after quoting the third and fourth line: "This is from Lin Hejing's plum blossom poem. Yet these lines might just as well be applied to the flowering apricot, peach, or pear." -- a comparison of the flowers with the plum blossom to which the renowned Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo (蘇東坡) replied, "Well, yes, they might. But I'm afraid the flowers of those other trees wouldn't presume to accept such praise." Plum blossoms inspired many people of the era.
Legend has it that once on the 7th day of the 1st lunar month, while Princess Shouyang (壽陽公主), daughter of Emperor Wu of Liu Song (劉宋武帝), was resting under the eaves of Hanzhang Palace near the plum trees after wandering in the gardens, a plum blossom drifted down onto her fair face, leaving a floral imprint on her forehead that enhanced her beauty further. The court ladies were said to be so impressed that they started decorating their own foreheads with a small delicate plum blossom design. This is also the mythical origin of the floral fashion, meihua zhuang (梅花妝; literally "plum blossom makeup"), that originated in the Southern Dynasties (420–589) and became popular amongst ladies in the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties. Princess Shouyang is celebrated as the goddess of the plum blossom in Chinese culture.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the garden designer Ji Cheng (計成) wrote his definitive garden architecture monograph Yuanye and in it he described the plum tree as the "beautiful woman of the forest and moon". The appreciation of nature at night plays an important role in Chinese gardens, for this reason there are classical pavilions for the tradition of viewing plum blossoms by the moonlight. The flowers are viewed and enjoyed by many as annual plum blossom festivals take place in the blooming seasons of the meihua. The festivals take place throughout China (for example, West Lake in Hangzhou and scenic spots near Zijin Mountain in Nanjing amongst other places). Plum blossoms are often used as decoration during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and remain popular in the miniature gardening plants of the art penjing. Branches of plum blossoms are often arranged in porcelain or ceramic vases, such as the meiping (literally "plum vase"). These vases can hold single branches of plum blossoms and are traditionally used to display the blossoms in a home since the early Song Dynasty (960–1279).
The Moy Yat lineage of Wing Chun kung fu uses a red plum flower blossom as its symbol. The plum blossoms are featured on one of the four flowers that appear on mahjong tile sets, where mei (梅) is usually simply translated as "plum" in English.
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