As the chill of autumn sets in, trees begin to lose their vibrancy, and plants begin to wilt. However, one particular flower prevails—the chrysanthemum. While its surroundings fade away, defeated by the frigid winds, this resilient flower starts to bloom. Since ancient times, the chrysanthemum has been admired by Chinese scholars and literati, inspiring countless poems, stories, and artworks. Besides praising it for its beauty, they celebrated it as a symbol of vitality and tenacity.
One of the earliest instances of the chrysanthemum being referenced in poetry is in Qu Yuan’s famous poem “Li Sao,” composed during the Warring States period. In it, he writes: “Dew from magnolia leaves I drank at dawn, / At eve for food were aster petals borne.”
Aster refers to the Asteraceae family of flowering plants, to which the chrysanthemum belongs. Chrysanthemums were commonly used for medicine. In just a few lines, Qu Yuan conveys that what matters isn’t one’s wealth, but rather the purity of one’s one’s heart.
As the poem suggests, the chrysanthemum was a relatively unremarkable flower, frequently used by the common people. In the “Compendium of Materia Medica,” a Chinese herbology volume written in the Ming Dynasty, numerous species of chrysanthemums were documented. One may wonder how such an ordinary plant acquired such cultural significance.
The chrysanthemum’s escalation in status didn’t occur until the Jin Dynasty, when it was brought to prominence by the poet Tao Yuanming. Much of his poetry described his simple life of reclusion in the countryside. He often drew inspiration from the beauty and serenity of nature, with the chrysanthemum being a frequent motif. In one of his most famous poems, “Drinking: No. 5,” he wrote: “I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge, / and gaze afar towards the southern mountains.”
Yuanming’s poetry often evoked in readers a yearning for the simplicity of a pastoral lifestyle, away from the bustle of city life. As a result, the chrysanthemum became a symbol of seclusion and a life free of materialism.
A Righteous Heart
This characterization of the chrysanthemum can further be seen in literature, such as in the story “Yuchu Xinzhi.” Written in the Qing Dynasty, it tells the tale of a scholar named Gao Chan. He was viewed as peculiar by his fellow intellectuals, as he had no desire for fame or wealth, and was often at odds with the Confucian scholars prevalent at the time. Gao Chan kept a low profile, but he was known by those close to him for his kindness and righteousness. He was always seeking self-improvement and frequently carried out good deeds in secret.
Gao Chan felt disillusioned by the fickleness of the world around him and longed for the freedom of the countryside. Thus, he decided to leave the tumult of the city and moved with his family to the mountains. For years, he lived a simple yet fulfilling existence amid nature. All was well, until one day a flood suddenly destroyed his home. Once again, he was forced to consider the volatility of life.
After some deliberation, Gao Chan realized that living a peaceful, idyllic lifestyle didn’t necessarily mean he had to retreat completely from society. Therefore, he moved back to the city, found an empty plot of land downtown, and built a new home. In his garden, he planted 500 chrysanthemum bulbs. Once autumn came around, his garden was in full bloom. Its beauty and sweet fragrance attracted visitors from all over the city.
Gao Chan opened the doors of his garden to the public, hoping to share his tranquil oasis with others. However, he chose to stay in the background, unknown to visitors. Guests remained unaware of the mysterious owner’s true identity, and referred to the garden by two words on the sign near the door—“Hua Yin,” meaning “hidden in the flowers.” This story demonstrates the upstanding character of Gao Chan. His love for chrysanthemums contributed to the flower’s becoming a symbol of righteousness as well as a sign of seclusion and simplicity.
Grace and Purity
In Chinese art, the plum blossom, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum are known as the “Four Gentlemen.” They are the most common subjects of traditional ink-wash paintings. Artists were attracted to them not only for their beauty but also because they symbolized uprightness, purity, and perseverance. Throughout the Qing Dynasty, the chrysanthemum, in particular, served as the muse for many talented painters.
One of the most famous artists of the Qing Dynasty is Yun Shouping. He is regarded as one of the “Six Masters” of the Qing period, and his works were known for their vibrancy and expressiveness.
He repopularized the “mogu”—also known as “boneless”—painting technique. This skill is particularly difficult to master, as there are no outlines, and brush strokes are made directly in either ink or color. Though it is challenging, the resulting artworks are exceptionally beautiful, as the technique captures the essence of a scene or object.
Another famous Qing Dynasty painter is Zou Yigui, who started out as a follower of Shouping’s style. He was an artist for the imperial family and was known for his meticulous eye for detail, especially in his stunning flower paintings. In his book “Xiao Shan Hua Pu,” he explains the methods and techniques needed to improve one’s landscape and flower compositions. According to Yigui, being a good artist is not just about having skills. One must truly understand and be in tune with one’s subject. This means not only appreciating the beauty of the flowers, but genuinely feeling the essence of nature on a deep level.
One of Yigui’s most celebrated chrysanthemum paintings is currently on display at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. It depicts vibrant clusters of chrysanthemums blooming amid lush green leaves, and was painted using the mogu method. By painting each petal with a soft gradient effect, Yigui gives the flowers a vivid, three-dimensional feel. Looking at the painting, one is filled with a sense of peace and comfort.
As the autumn leaves start changing color, and cold winds have a sharper bite, the aromatic scent of the chrysanthemum will once again fill the air. With thousands of years of rich cultural history, the chrysanthemum is much more than just another pretty flower.
This autumn, take a page from the books of the ancient Chinese literati: Brew yourself a cup of chrysanthemum tea, sit by a window with a view of the changing landscape, and enjoy some traditional poetry.
This article was written by Cora Wang and translated by Angela Feng into English. It is republished with permission from Elite Magazine.