A flawless symbol
The language of flowers is no more uniform in the different continents than is the speech of men. Most of us are ignorant of what the hot house orchid may say to its slave-owner, or what the lush tropical varieties murmur to the bright birds and butterflies which flit over them, but considering the flower it presumably would be something rather rarified. In South America, Africa, India, Malaysia and Indonesia, girls pick these flowers every day, putting them lightly behind their ears, or sticking them into their beautiful coronets of blue-black hair. In supposedly underprivileged countries orchids are not the luxurious blossom seen at the opera or as a corsage.
In China and Japan, however, it is well known what orchids say: they assure their admirers (everyone), that they represent purity, nobility and high-mindedness; that they are the emblem of the incorruptible gentleman-scholar , and embody, as Confucius himself admitted, the exquisite characteristics of the perfect or superior man. They are also the symbol of love, beauty, fragrance and refinement. It is a pity that Lewis Carroll could not have had an orchid in the flowery garden in "Through the Looking Glass" -- what might he not have this paragon say?
Besides all this, in China and Japan orchids also call to mind a famous ancient poem, a lament written in the third century B.C. by Ch'u Yuan, and called the "LI SAO," or "Encountering Sorrow." To look at an orchid in these countries almost automatically makes the viewer remember the tragic hero of this long narrative, the statesman who strove for Virtue, to find in the end, as is so often the case, that she was his only reward. From being a favorite, he was estranged from his sovereign, slandered, disgraced, forced into exile, and finally drowned in the Mi-lo River. All this took place in the Kingdom of Ch'u, down in the south, a poetical region, enamored of flowers.
The poem, which contains 374 lines, describes the sufferings of the loyal minister with a wealth of allusions, most of them based on flowers, and many on orchids. "The age is disordered in a tumult of changing: How can I tarry much longer among them? Orchids and iris have lost all their fragrance."
This picture, executed about the middle of the 14th century by Tesshu Tokusai , a Japanese Zen monk painter, is very similar to the great orchid paintings of China. Like them it was done with swift inspiration, by a practiced hand, and with ink and brush. The wonderful brush of these artists was uniquely suited to depicting this flower with its long narrow swaying leaves and delicate blossoms. Here it is shown in a classic arrangement, next a rock, but the rock is handled very differently than a Chinese artist would have chosen -- its lines are looser , broader and freer than a Chinese would have, countenanced in this sort of setting. Again, and this is also a Japanese characteristic, the plant appears very close to the viewer, as though one could almost touch it.
The artist was trained in Kamakura, later going to china for a prolonged stay. Coming back to Japan he finally became an abbot in Kyoto, leaving an honored memory both as a great painter and as a follower of Zen Buddhism.
It has been said in the west that orchids are very difficult to paint because of their "irregularity and variety" (a botanical opinion.) These traits do not seem to have struck Eastern artists. PErhaps the noble scholars of China and Japan did suffer from certain irregularities, but their painters saw them as flawless and were able to paint them in that light -- flawlessly.