Chinese Flowering Plum Motif

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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. 5a-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...
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