The Orchid and Confucius

In a recent blogpost titled “Brushstrokes of Spring”, Daisann mentioned that she was given a lucky Spring Couplet (揮春) (“fai cheun”) by Uncle Wah (華叔) (Szeto Wah). I couldn’t help marvelling at the latter’s quick wit and literary virtuosity.

The fai cheun reads like this: “蘭心繡口, 恩重情隆” and my translation reads “With your heart (noble) like an orchid, your speech (elegant) like embroidery, you have shown (us) great magnanimity and abundant affection.”

With a total of just eight characters in two poetic lines and topping each line with one of two characters in Daisann’s Chinese name “蘭恩”, Uncle Wah at once described Daisann’s character as expressed through her writing profession and complimented her for having made a positive impact on Hong Kong society. The words that are shown in brackets in the translation are all implied words as deduced from the written words.

Speaking is one way to express one’s thoughts while writing is another way. The character “口” (mouth) is a pun and is used figuratively here to describe Daisann’s writing profession which involves expression of thoughts and ideas.

One would have to have a deeper knowledge of Chinese literature and history to be able to know what the author means by a particular word (e.g. the word “蘭”). This is the amazing thing about Chinese literature – an awful lot, including historical background and literary implications, can be expressed in a single character. Although this word is a given (being one of the two characters in Daisann’s name), Uncle Wah used it in such a way as to give a deeper meaning to it rather than a superficial one (which could be just the pretty appearance of the flower). The hint here is that he used it along with the character “心” (heart).

Of all flowers, the orchid is one that has always had a moral impact on Chinese culture and society. It is a flower that has a cultivation history of over two thousand years and its first association with humanity was said to be made by Confucius. I must admit that I have forgotten a lot of what I learned about the life and works of Confucius from Chinese Literature lessons in my school days. While surfing the internet I happened to stumble upon this essay that reminded me much about the relationship between the orchid and Confucius.

Confucius was shown to have developed a special love for the orchid from an early age. It happened that he had been seeking a ministerial job with the emperors of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (“Spring and Autumn” period) (春秋) but his efforts proved futile after traveling among the kingdoms for more than a decade. One day as he was wandering in the woods he came upon some profusely growing orchids which moved him to say: “夫蘭當為王者香, 今乃獨茂, 與眾草為伍, 譬猶賢者不逢時, 與鄙夫為倫也.” (my translation: “The orchids’ fragrance should be enjoyed by royalties in their residence, but they now look so solitary amongst grasses in the wild. They are not unlike noble scholars whom no one appreciates and who have to be contented with the company of the philistine class.”) Confucius likened his not being appreciated by emperors to the solitary orchids in the woods not being cherished by royalties as they should. In that era, orchids were a scarce species that only royalties and the noble class could afford to use as ornament plants in their homes.

Confucius also thought of the orchid as a flower of noble character, as he said in “孔子家語” (“Confucius’ Family Dialogue”): “芝蘭生於森林, 不為無人而不芳, 君子修道立德, 不為窮困而改節” (my translation: “The orchids grow in the woods and they let out their fragrance even if there is no one around to appreciate it. Likewise, men of noble character will not let poverty deter their will to be guided by high principles and morals.” In short, orchids symbolized nobleness and tenacity of character.

The light yet lingering unique fragrance of the orchid also had a profound effect on Confucius. He said “與善人居, 如入芝蘭之室, 久而不聞其香, 即與之化矣. 與不善人居, 如入鮑魚之肆, 久而不聞其臭, 亦與之化矣.” (my translation: “If you are in the company of good people, it is like entering a room full of orchids. After a while, you become soaked in the fragrance and you don’t even notice it. If you are in the company of bad people, it is like going into a room that smells of fish. After a while, you don’t notice the fishy smell as you have been immersed in it.” The orchid’s fragrance was used to portray the sublimity of character which Confucius believed everyone should strive for and which formed the basis of his moral preaching, and to emphasize the influential power of people of such character.

Since the Confucian era, the orchid symbolism has been widely used in literary works. In both classic and modern literature, the plum (梅), the orchid (蘭), the chrysanthemum (菊) and the bamboo (竹) are referred to as “the noble four” (四君子) of plants.

Thus one can see how much of history and literary background can be inferred in one simple character like “蘭” (orchid), and the above is hardly an exhaustive source of relevant historical and literary information, although it is the most common source.