Asian Art Museum Corfu

Virtues and Flowers in Chinese Culture

Christina Panera

An article on the occasion of the event ‘From the Gardens of the Palace to the Flowers of the East’ on 26 and 27 May 2022 at the Museum of Asian Art in Corfu.


Philosophical intellect flourished in ancient China as well as in ancient Greece. One of the most influential philosophers in ancient China was Kongzi (551–479 BC), who lived at about the same time as Socrates (469–399 BC). He is the only person whose influence has undoubtedly been exerted on the whole of Chinese and Asian philosophical thought and is best known to us by the Latinized term, Confucius. As China’s greatest sage and teacher, his educational views formed the basis of the later Confucian movement, while Confucius himself was religiously worshipped by the emperors of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties.


Confucius in the Analects describes the virtuous man as Jun Zi, which literally translates as the offspring of an aristocratic family. According to Confucianism, the ideal model of man is characterized by specific moral virtues that govern him, both in his inner world and in his presence in society. We could say that this is the Chinese version of καλοκάγαθος (kalokágathos) of the ancient Greeks that governs Chinese culture, which over time symbolized the virtues of a man using the metaphor of plants and flowers of the natural environment.


The presence of floral decoration over time in Chinese art, such as painting and ceramics and especially in the coveted porcelain, is evident. These arts adorn the background of everyday life in China and East Asia. The cultural context that governs the depiction of flowers in art must be comprehend through the understanding of traditional Chinese culture that has its roots in antiquity.


The four most typical examples of plant decoration are plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo and chrysanthemums. When depicted together, they symbolize the four seasons that influence the plant and animal cycle, as an institutionalized principle that firmly governs both philosophical and religious thought in China. But we will admire their ‘way’ of life when we look at them individually.


Plum blossoms bloom in the heart of winter when the ice rules. Yet, despite the adverse conditions, its flowers bloom, showing their beautiful colours. As if to say to the man, “Look! And you in the most challenging moments can shine, and your soul can flourish “.


The orchid that symbolizes spring teaches us elegance. It teaches us that we must live life beautifully and elegantly. Usually, the Chinese place the orchids in the vase as a symbol of unity, as to how beautiful can life become when you share it with other people?


The bamboo that is present in summer and sways in the wind generously offers a piece of advice. “When the wind blows, learn to bend and not to break.” Yet, at the same time, this particular symbol of summer is characterized by humility, as its hollow trunk has no room for its ego.


Finally, when autumn comes, leaving behind the carefree and happy moments of summer, the chrysanthemums bloom and shine with their bright colour. But what sweet light can it bring when we let the golden flower shine inside us in front of the winter ice?


The above four examples are known as the four Jun Zi (Gentlemen), or we could otherwise characterize them as the four examples of virtuous people. Indeed, the presence of floral decoration in Chinese art can hide words of wisdom, and this particular wisdom comes from the simple observation of nature.


How could we understand art without philosophy, and how we could philosophize without nature?


An example of such a depiction survives today in a 17th century Chinese jar at the Museum of Asian Art in Corfu. It is a calabash-shaped flask with a dragon-shaped mouthpiece and an elephant-shaped handle, which were already there known from the Shang dynasty (1600 to 1046 BC). The high firing grey clay with oil brown glaze is a provincial Martaban specimen of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD). The illustration on both sides of the four Junzi, bamboo and plum blossoms (Picture 1) as well as orchids with chrysanthemums (Picture 2), showing the spread of specific topics even at the provincial level.

Christina Panera is an archaeologist who specialized in Ancient Religions from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, and her research was based on Confucianism and Daoism. Today, she works at the Corfu Museum of Asian Art as an archaeologist in charge of the Chinese Collections.

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