By Iona Maccombie Smith | The BL

In traditional Chinese painting, Apricot, Orchid, Chrysanthemum, and Reed flowers are used as the symbolic images of the gentlemen. Chinese people attached great importance to the virtues of tolerance, honesty, and integrity; the typical characteristics of the gentlemen.

Aman was expected to be patient, possess the ability to endure hardships and conduct himself with grace, in order to successfully earn the title, gentleman. Due to this connection to such honorable qualities, the flowers that symbolized a gentleman exert a huge presence in ancient Chinese paintings.

Through history, the expectations of what being a gentleman meant in people minds changed frequently, as did the specific criteria for evaluation in each period. In ancient China, people would refer to the characteristics of the Apricot, the Orchid, the Chrysanthemum, and the Bamboo Reed to serve as their criteria for assessing what it meant to be a gentleman. Later, the pillars of Confucius’ philosophy (kindness, decorum, uprightness, and wisdom) were used in their place, but these flowers initially played a huge role in the development of the refined gentleman.

It was through art and painting that the message of these great flowers was told. To be truly great one must be like the plant.

Apricot flower

A type of flower that blooms in the winter and spring, and is able to withstand the harshest cold climate

Apricot has a strong vitality, and in the cold, it still rises and flowers with incredibly vibrant colors. Ancient people would use the image of the apricot flower to remind them that a gentleman must be willing to face any challenge, be strong enough to endure hardships and adversity, and finally, overcome all difficulties to ultimately become a great nobleman.

There are other types of plants that have a far more majestic appearance, whereas the Apricot flower is quite rustic, gentle and liberal. Within this characteristic, it is implied that gentlemen who want to do incredible things must first be humble, strict with themselves, tolerant of others and carefully consider the words and actions that they choose.

A gentleman must be willing to face any challenge, be strong enough to endure hardship and adversity, and finally overcome all difficulties, in order to become a great nobleman.

Also, apricot flowers were considered, by ancient Chinese people, to represent purity and transparency. Their aroma is as light as the heart of a gentleman, with a pure soul and a calm mind like still water.

Orchid flower

Regarded as the Queen of fragrant flowers

The Orchid is a type of herbaceous, fragrant plant, which was regarded to be the king of fragrant flowers thanks to their noble aroma.

As their given name might suggest, the King of Flowers, the ancient Chinese population had a deep respect for orchids. Orchids also have many other names. These names highlight their outstanding features and unique aromas, their eccentric shapes and exquisite colors. Above all else, Orchids are highly appreciated for their unique aroma. Nobility and fragrance are the two outstanding features that have made orchids well-known in the world of flowers.

(Photo: Pinterest)

Chinese people discovered orchids a long time ago, they began planting and cultivating them at least 2000 years ago during the Han Dynasty, then through the North and South Dynasty, and finally, it was during the period of the Tang Dynasty that planting orchids was made wildly popular. By the time of the Ming dynasty, famous physician Li Shizhen had written his book ‘Compendium of Materia Medica’, which provided guides to and advice on planting orchids, people finally had easy access to knowledge on taking care of orchids. In short, ancient people thought that planting orchids was not just a simple activity but a process of self-cultivation. Planting orchids helped to cultivate the quality and character of the gentleman.

It was an ancient Chinese belief that a gentleman needed to use his virtue to make him outstanding, just like the pure and humble orchid with its wafting fragrance. They had a saying: ‘Orchids are born in the deep forest, but they never lose their fragrance and beauty just because of the external environment. Also, those who are cultivating their virtue will never change their mind just because of hardships.

Confucius and the Orchid

Confucius. (Photo:

Confucius spent all of his life travelling from country to country trying to persuade kings to use his philosophy and principles to rule with. Whilst on one of these journeys, he came across orchids growing in the middle of a patch of plentiful plants. The sight immediately made him think of himself. He likened his role in life to these orchids: the orchids were inherently the kings of flowers but they only grow naturally in the presence of other much more humble plants. He stopped and played an extremely sympathetic piece of music, which is still to this day a popular piece of historic Chinese music.


The Royal Flower of China

The ancient people of China favored the color yellow above all others. It was, they said, the color of prosperity and luck. So the yellow Chrysanthemum was, of course, considered the Royal Flower of China.

The Chrysanthemum has been planted and cultivated in China for over 3000 years. At the time of its arrival, there were mostly only yellow chrysanthemum flowers but by the time of the Jin Dynasty, white chrysanthemum flowers had begun to appear.

The Royal Flower of China. (Photo: Pinterest)

The Chrysanthemum is unusual in its nature because it flowers considerably later in the season than most flowers. Where the majority of other Chinese flowers bloom with beautiful technicolor in the spring, the Chrysanthemum blooms only in the fall, during the cold weather. It shows off its beauty alone. This is why the people of ancient China regarded the Chrysanthemum to be a symbol of loneliness, bravery, confidence, and outstanding quality. Dare to do what others do not dare to do. Dare to think what others have not thought. This is the next character trait of a true gentleman.

In the cold autumn weather, while thousands of other flowers wither, Chrysanthemums still flourish. A symbol of the Chrysanthemums embrace of the hidden strengths of heaven and earth. This implies that a great man must see his virtues as his true personality.

The Bamboo reed

Symbolizes uprightness, tolerance, and the very high quality of a nobleman

Bamboo is often used as a symbol of the gentlemen because it is both hard and soft at the same time. It is in reference to a gentleman being able to bend and adapt to the needs of those around him, the ability to know how to treat other people properly in different circumstances. Bamboo reeds stand out for their peace, nobility, and purity despite their humble origin.

And like a gentleman, Bamboo flowers stand still and in place while they fade, they do not drop or wilt like other flowers. This is the characteristic of a gentleman.

(Photo: Adobe Stock/ Photo illustration by TheBL)

These botanical symbols of the gentleman greatly influenced cultural paintings for millennia. Their deep meanings helped people to cultivate morality and aspire to perfect both their minds and bodies. They initially set the standard for evaluating gentlemanly qualities. They formed the ‘yardstick’ from which each man was measured and the boundary between the great and the small-minded was set.

(The cover photo: Confucius and the Orchid (Wikipedia Commons/Adobe Stock – Illustration by The BL)