From dragons to plum blossom — nature has played an important role in Asian art from the earliest dynastic periods. Here, specialist Leila de Vos Van Steenwijk reveals the meaning behind various motifs, with works from our online auction
The beauty of nature has been celebrated in Chinese and Japanese culture throughout the ages, finding its expression in literature, music, Daoist and Buddhist beliefs, and the arts. Encompassing a range of media — from porcelain, jade and cloisonné to classical and contemporary paintings — our online auction Asian Art Inspired by Nature explores the theme in works dating from the 8th century to today.
Readily understood by those they were made for, the hidden messages and expression of thoughts and emotion within these symbols still resonate with collectors today.
Landscapes — expressions of the heart and mind
In China, landscape paintings were much more than literal representations of the artist’s surrounds, but expressions of the artist’s heart and mind. For literati artists from the Tang dynasty (618-907) onwards, it was common practice to withdraw into nature, to contemplate its beauty and force.
Though there have been dramatic shifts in Asia’s landscapes and culture over centuries, today, Asian artists continue this longstanding tradition, promoting the idea that man is not only an integral part of the natural world, but that a connection with nature is vital for his personal growth and well-being. Contemporary artist Chen Jialing (b.1937) creates highly expressive depictions of nature, capturing its beauty through experiments in photography, ink and rich colour.
Scholar’s objects — bringing the outside in
For China’s literati, nature served as inspiration, not just for their poetry, calligraphy or painting, but also for the objects that decorated their elegant studios. Ornamental rocks, known as ‘Scholars’ rocks’, were a literal manifestation of a desire to bring nature indoors. Cherished in China, Japan and the West, the objects have held a continual appeal for more than 1,000 years, for collectors of both classical and contemporary works.
Other works that would have elegantly suited a scholar’s studio include a Chinese root wood and a porcelain ‘landscape’ brush pot, a bamboo wrist-rest, and a fine jade boulder — its beautifully carved depiction of scholars wandering among mountains offering a sense of escape from official life, as well as reflecting the literati’s aesthetic refinement.
Plants — from plum blossom to lotus flowers
Both beautiful and invested with symbolic meaning, plants emerge as decorative features in a wide array of artworks. Used as decoration on this jade brush washer, prunus, or plum blossom symbolises the arrival of spring, as well as perseverance and purity. Five petals represent the ‘Five Blessings’: longevity, wealth, health, love and virtue, and a peaceful death.
Prunus blossom also appears vividly painted on a Kangxi period (1662–1722) sweet meat set, as well as a pair of Japanese Meiji period (1868–1912) vases — its freely painted branches set off against a coral red background.
Much favoured as a decorative motif, the lotus is associated with Buddhism, and is a symbol of both feminine beauty and purity — capable or rising even from mud to bloom.
In Chinese art, the chrysanthemum is traditionally regarded as one of the ‘Four Gentlemen’ — four plants admired for their refined beauty, which represent each of the seasons: chrysanthemum for autumn, plum blossom for winter, the orchid for spring, and bamboo for summer.
Known as ju in Chinese, which sounds like jiu, meaning ‘a long time’, the chrysanthemum came to be associated with longevity — with infusions from their petals holding medicinal properties. With their profusion of petals, they are also associated with wealth, and have also been used as pictorial symbols, with ju also a homophone for a word meaning ‘to dwell’.
Beside plants, real and mythological animals were among the first motifs to be painted on vessels in China. Fish, deer and grains appear on earthenware created as early as the 4th millennium B.C. in the Yangshao Neolithic culture at Banpo, in China’s Shaanxi province.
Associated with good fortune, career advancement and the mythological ‘Immortals’, deer have always been a popular subject, bringing the promise of a high position, respect and wealth.
Known as the ‘king of the birds’ the phoenix symbolises good fortune, with different body parts representing benevolence (ren), righteousness (yi), propriety (li), knowledge (zhi) and sincerity (xin). In the Yuan dynasty, the phoenix also came to symbolise the empress when shown together with a dragon, symbolising happy marriage.
Similarly, this pair of mandarin ducks had the same symbolic meaning, symbolising love and marriage.