Chinese Painting & The Four Gentlemen

Table Talks
May 11, 2021
Celine Nanena

Also known as the 'Four Noble Ones' , within Chinese ink painting, the four gentlemen represent highly prized virtues in Chinese culture. The plum (梅), the orchid (蘭), the bamboo (竹), and the chrysanthemum(菊)are the four gentlemen in the realm of plants and flowers. They represent humility, purity, righteousness, and perseverance, which is why they are commonly seen within traditional Chinese art. Their refined beauty has been depicted in Chinese paintings, typically traditional ink, and washes, for more than a thousand years.

Often painted together in sequence and hung together, it is a meditative practice that finds lets itself to wabi-sabi philosophy. Finding beauty in every season through art, even during times where leaves are wilting and the winter offers up a biting cold, there is beauty in nature.

The Orchid

The orchid represents 'the gentleman of spring'. Though fragile in form, its beauty and tendencies exude humility and nobility. Perfect for breathing life into space and appealing for its non-overpowering fragrance.

Painting by Chang Dai-chien and Fang Zhaoling, Asian Art Museum.

The Bamboo

The hollow bamboo stalk is slim, with joints on its stem and leaves like scabbards. These features of the plant came to symbolise tolerance and open-mindedness. In traditional Chinese culture, bamboo is a metaphor for strength and flexibility representing the human values of cultivation and integrity, in which one yields but does not break.

Painting by Xia Chang, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Chrysanthemum

The chrysanthemum flowers bloom in the cold air energetically in graceful shapes and bright colours. A traditional flower loved by the East and enriched in history dating back three thousand years ago. The elements of the chrysanthemum plant symbolise the virtue to withstand all adversities.

Painting by Qi Baishi.

The Plum

The plum tree has the ability to flourish at severely low temperature and harsh wind, which is why it is renowned for bursting into a riot of blossoms in the dead of winter when most flowers don't survive. It is for this reason, the demeanour and character of the plum tree serves as a metaphor for inner beauty and humble displays — a symbol for being firm and indomitable under adverse conditions. Implementing elements of the elegant plum blossom in the home or office will strengthen the energy within and serve these very purposes according to ancient Chinese intellectuals.

Painting by Sakai Hōitsu, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


An ancient Chinese belief system of thought and behaviour. Confucius (孔夫子) was a philosopher and teacher who lived from 551 to 479 B.C.E. He laid the foundation for much of Chinese culture.' Junzi' is the Chinese philosophical term often translated as"gentleman" or "superior person".

Ornamental Rock No.71 By Zhan Wang

A modern take of a scholar’s rock recreates the naturally eroded rocks that Chinese scholars revered for their dynamic play of positive and negative space energy, also seen in calligraphy.