Increasingly, I see no distinction between art and life, although there is a sense of the word “art” that suggests fabrication. As a writer, or someone who loves to write (sometimes it feels pompous to call myself a writer), I have found art to be simply another form of expression, one that flows naturally as a complement to my words. This is a view that traditional Chinese artists embrace, particularly those artists known as literati.
In literati painting, inscriptions on the work are intrinsic to the art. The literati derive their inspiration from nature, tradition and philosophy. In literati painting, art is an expression of character. Technical skill, or “artifice”, is less important than the genuine inspiration evident in the work.
Traditional Chinese art often features one of four themes known as the Four Noble Ones or, the Four Gentlemen. These themes are the plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum. The essay below is adapted from my book, Four Masters of Yuan and Literati Art: Tradition in China from Mongol Rule to Modern Times.
The Four Gentlemen in Chinese Art
Literati artists have an affinity for nature. In their response to nature they believe they are revealing essential qualities about their own character. The qualities they hope to cultivate in themselves, they believe, are innate to certain plants. Four of these, called The Four Gentlemen in Chinese Art–the bamboo, chrysanthemum, plum and orchid–are said to embody different aspects of a noble character. In fact, the plants are also called The Four Noble Ones. Each of these plants has been featured across the centuries in exquisitely expressive art.
Wood, Bamboo and Elegant Stone, a painting by Yuan Dynasty artist Ni Zan (above), is part of a long tradition that reveres this plant. Bamboo is seen as a natural embodiment of longevity, humility and endurance.
Ong Schan Tchow, a twentieth-century painter, devoted a book to the study of chrysanthemums. This flower holds a special place in Chinese culture because the flower was first cultivated there. Chrysanthemums blossom in autumn, when winter is looming and other flowers are fading. It is the flower’s ability to flourish when others perish that makes it a metaphor for withstanding adversity.
Lu Zhi, an artist from the Ming Dynasty, was also a calligrapher and poet. His painting, Plum Blossoms, is featured at the top of this page. The plum tree blossoms in winter. This winter bloom, in harsh circumstances, represents to the Chinese the qualities of endurance and prosperity.
Another Ming Dynasty artist, Hu Zhengyan, was also a printer and calligrapher. He was a traditionalist who featured a variety of simple, natural themes in his painting. The image presented here is “Orchid”. In the orchid many see qualities of humility and grace. The orchid blossoms in remote locations and often exudes its fragrance in solitude. The nobility of quiet repose is much admired in classic Chinese art and poetry.