Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Traditional Chinese Ink Painting: Chinese Wild Orchids

"As T’ang Hou stated in his Mirror of Painting (Hua-chien) :
It is said that painting the plum-flower is to “ write” the plum; painting bamboo is to “ write” the bamboo; painting the orchid is to “ write” the orchid. Why is this so? It is because of a flower’s great purity. This cannot be found in likeness." - Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting (1991),  p427.


The Chinese wild orchid (Asian cymbidium), like the snowdrop in Britain, represents the arrival of Spring and since the time of Confucius, around the 6th Century BC, has been associated with moral gentlemen. The flower became a subject for traditional Chinese painters in the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD); starting with outlined forms and then later moving on to using calligraphic style brush strokes.


During the 14th Century, Zen monks in China began to use the orchids as symbols of recluses who lived in the mountains, something referred to in the book Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 8th-14th Century (1992), p299:
"Because the orchid grows wild in inaccessible mountainous areas, it symbolizes the reclusion of the scholar-painters and poets, a trend that became significant in the last years of the Southern Sung, particularly after the Mongol conquest."

The major Tang Dynasty poet, Meng Haoran (690-740 AD), wrote a poem along such a theme before the Song Dynasty called To Zhang, Climbing Orchid Mountain on an Autumn Day, which can be translated as follows:
"The northern mountain is hidden in white cloud,
A happy place for hermits to retire.
So we can meet, I try to climb the heights,
My heart is fading like a goose in flight.
My sorrow's prompted by the creeping dusk,
But then clear autumn spurs on my desires.
At length we see the villagers return,
They walk the sand and rest at the river crossing.
The trees against the sky are like shepherd's purse,
An islet by the shore just like the moon.
I hope you have some wine to celebrate,
We'll spend the autumn festival drunk together."

Aesthetically, it seems the ink wash orchid painting lies somewhere between plum blossom and bamboo, since it depictss grass-like leaves, and elegant flowers. There is a strong feeling of traditional Chinese calligraphy in the orchid leaves in particular, and it is the depiction of these leaves which seems to be where the essence of this elegant plant is captured, as the author of Chinese Ink Painting: Techniques in Shades of Black (1984) writes, p60:
"...the elegance of a grass orchid is provided by the special overlapping of its long, thin leaves."

The relationship between orchid leaves and calligraphy is made explicit in Beyond Representation (1991), where the author writes, p218:
"Ma Ho-chih channels all his expressive energy into his fluctuating calligraphic formula, known as “orchid-leaf” drawing. [...] Turning Li’s plain drawing into the thickening-and thinning orchid-leaf manner, Ma Ho-chih creates a visual and musical poetry alive with energy."
Knowing the traditional Chinese ink and brush well, and understanding how much pressure to apply at any given moment is essential to the discipline, and I have been glad to have invested more than 1 year in practicing traditional calligraphy before beginning painting classes. Here is a traditional Chinese orchid painting I made under the guidance of my teacher, Jasmine Zhang, here in Beijing:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for such an interesting article along with beautiful visual examples.. Beautiful orchids you painted there, too.