The Chinese artistic theme of the Four Gentlemen refers to four plants, including an orchid. Recently, while Dave and I were enjoying dinner at a local restaurant, I spotted a nearby flowerpot illustrating the Four Gentlemen. I can’t read Chinese, so I don’t know what the writing says, but I recognized each plant. The first row of photos depicts one side of the flowerpot. It features a centuries-old Chinese style of painting Cymbidium orchids with long, graceful leaves. The second photo zooms in on the flowers, and the third photo shows the smaller leaves and roots.
The Four Gentlemen, also called the Four Noble Ones, are orchid, bamboo, plum, and chrysanthemum. For over a thousand years, Asian artists have drawn this quartet. Each symbolizes a season, as well as human moral qualities. Orchids represent spring, and also nobility, elegance, integrity, and friendship. There are many orchid species native to East Asia, but this artistic genre usually portrays small, fragrant Cymbidiums. The traditional painting style emphasizes their arching leaves instead of their flowers. Each leaf is drawn with a single brushstroke, done with the same precision and artistry as Chinese calligraphy. The next two photos below show modern cultivars of the types typically drawn in this style. The third photo depicts orchid leaves and flower buds on the flowerpot.
The final pictures feature the other three sides of the flowerpot with the other three gentlemen. There’s a bamboo for summer, mums for autumn, and a flowering plum for winter.
The Four Gentlemen have long been woven into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese painting and pottery. In fact, Mahjong players may recognize this group, since the Four Gentlemen are often seen on the game’s flower tiles. For more info, check out The Garden Plants of China, which has a lot on the histories of traditional orchids and other popular varieties.