THE popularity of the flowering plum tree as a subject in Chinese painting offers a remarkable example of how events can influence art. Before the 12th century, the flowering plum was only one of many plants whose symbolic meanings formed part of the vocabulary of painting and poetry. It was the first to bloom, around the time of the Chinese New Year. Snow and ice were still on the ground, and the cold made short work of the flowers. Still, even that brief blossoming offered promise that spring was on its way.
The blossoms of the flowering plum tree symbolized both the annual return of life in nature as a whole and the transience of individual lives. The tree itself was extraordinarily long-lived, however, and came to mean the ability to survive in difficult circumstances.
In the year 1127 these symbolic meanings took on new poignancy, and since that time the flowering plum has enjoyed a central place in the language of Chinese painting. The Jurchen, a hostile people from the northern borderlands, swept down on China, occupied the capital, and carried off the emperor and much of his court.
The survivors fled southward and established a new capital at Hangzhou. The city became rich and densely populated, and court life resumed. But no one could forget China's military humiliation, the fact that much of the country now lived under foreign oppression, and the danger that the northern barbarians could at any time reach out and take the rest of the country.
With its promise of renewal, the flowering plum quickly became a symbol of embattled China itself. The tree grew profusely in southern China, and its frequent use in painting suggested that Chinese high culture had made a successful start in its new location.
The painting reproduced above refers to the cult of the scholarly recluse, which became fashionable during this period. More than a century earlier, the poet Lin Bu had lived as a poor hermit on an island near Hangzhou. He devoted himself to raising cranes, planting plum trees, and writing poetry.
The sudden arrival in Hangzhou of China's uprooted courtiers made Lin Bu's example widely imitated. The Chinese governing class of that time lacked the military virtues, but it tried to compensate in other directions by cultivating scholarship and the art of living.
Just as 19th-century American robber barons built hunting lodges, so well-to-do Chinese embraced at least the ideal of austere living in the great outdoors. To reflect that ideal there was an outpouring of paintings in which a modest, reclusive scholar, Lin Bu come back to life, is seen in conjunction with the flowering plum tree. If the recluse actually had a dozen palaces, those need not appear in the painting.
The courtly recluses were not mere hypocrites. As invasions from the north diminished the power of the Chinese governing class, there arose a genuine interest in living a spiritual life in harmony with nature. And as the affairs of empire came to be directed from a city that was overcrowded even by today's standards, it was understandable that educated people might wish to live like rustics for at least part of the year.
For centuries China has had reason to fear invasion and foreign domination. In art and literature, the flowering plum has been used to symbolize immediate beauties and dangers, and at the same time to remind the Chinese of their enduring strength in adversity.
``Bones of Jade, Soul of Ice,'' an exhibition on the flowering plum in Chinese art, opened at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, Calif., and is on the way to the Yale University Art Gallery (April 18 to June 16), which organized it; and the St. Louis Art Museum (July 12 to Sept. 8).