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Yang Hui's A Branch of the Cold Season: An Early Ming Ink Painting of Flowering Plum
Mimi Gardner Gates
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In Flowering-Plum village at the foot of Luofu Mountain,
The flowering plums’ bones are of jade and snow, and their souls of ice.
In their multitude the blossoms seem moonlight hanging from the trees,
In their brightness they are alone with Orion on the horizon at dusk.   
                By Su Shi蘇軾 (1037–1101)Su Shi "Using the Same Rhyme Words Again" translated by Hans Frankel in Maggie Bickford et. al., Bones of Jade, Soul of Ice: The Flowering Plum in Chinese Art, Yale University Art Gallery, 1985, p. 169.

Ubiquitous in Chinese painting, poetry, ornament, and in nature, the flowering plum (mei hua梅花), is uncontested as China’s favorite blossom. Over the centuries it has acquired a wealth of meaningful associations, not only foretelling the welcome coming of spring but also identified with understated elegance, the fragility and transience of female beauty, and the solitary enjoyment of nature by the noble recluse, detached from worldly pursuits. These are but two of many concepts which over time became indelibly associated with the blossoming plum.Maggie Bickford has discussed in depth the flowering plum and its associations in Ibid. and in Ink Plum, the Making of a Chinese Scholar-Painting Genre. Cambridge University Press, 1996. This essay is based in large part on her publications. I take all responsibility for errors.

While the blossoms are short-lived, the aged branches and hoary trunk suggest longevity, an auspicious association which also accrued to the Three Friends of the Cold Season. Joined with evergreen pine and bamboo, the flowering plum constitutes the Three Friends of the Cold Season (suihan sanyou 歲寒三友), which, in addition to longevity, symbolize the integrity and high-mindedness of the Confucian scholar and his ability to endure adversity in difficult times.

Not only Chinese but also Japanese and Korean artists have expressed enthusiasm for the flowering plum, its auspiciousness and distinctive beauty.

Before further exploring the associations of the flowering plum and the correspondence between style and patronage, it is worth reviewing briefly botanists’ classification of the flowering plum. While in Chinese the tree is referred to as mei and the blossoms as mei hua, in European languages it has no definitive name. According to botanist Li Hui-lin, “Together with peach, almond, cherry and other flowering and fruiting trees and shrubs, these plants (mei) belong to the genus Prunus. In 1836, the mei hua was designated Prunus mume by the botanists Siebold and Zuccarini, based on their observation of plants growing in Japan. Mume may be derived from ume, the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese mei, or it may actually represent a combination of mei and ume.”Li Huilin, “A Botanical Note” in Bickford et al, Bones of Jade, Soul of Ice, p.245.

Li’s research in ancient texts indicates that mei is indigenous to southern Shaanxi province in North China and was exported to Japan in early times. Today, the flowering plum grows wild in central and southwestern China and is cultivated throughout China, especially in the Yangzi and Pearl River basins, as well as in Japan, the United States and beyond.Ibid.

The distinctive characteristics of the flowering plum’s appearance in nature and its growth cycle are the source of its many associations. The blossoms have five petals, most often snowy white, which flower and fall well before the leaves appear. Since for the Chinese the number five is auspicious, the fact that each blossom has five petals makes the plum (mei) an auspicious symbol, while its whiteness and blossoming in late winter, when ice and snow still blanket the ground, associate it with integrity, purity, and resilience under adverse circumstances. 

Moreover, the plum tree flowers as the cold weather approaches its end, making it the harbinger of spring. In his poem entitled “The Flowering Plum,” Xiao Gang蕭綱 (503–551), who reigned as the Liang emperor Jianwen簡文 (549–551), writes,

The flowering plum is the earliest to blossom,
She alone has the gift of recognizing spring.Xiao Gang, "The Flowering Plum" translated by Hans Frankel in Ibid, p.155.

Many flowering plum trees live more than one hundred years, so the aged trees are also associated with longevity. As they age, the trunk and branches become gnarled and angular, while young branches, heavily laden with blossoms, and whip-like shoots issue forth in all directions. This growth pattern has great visual appeal.

When all these characteristics and related associations are taken into account, it is no wonder that the flowering plum (mei) gave rise in literature to an abundance of plum poetry and in the visual arts, it inspired, among other things, colorful, superbly detailed plum painting at the Imperial court, and the distinct genre of ink plum painting favored by the literati. A masterwork of Chinese art in the Seattle Art Museum collection exemplifies the understated beauty of ink plum painting.

The Ink Plum (momei 墨梅)

In the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126) and earlier, the flowering plum appears in poetry and painting, but it was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, after the Song court was forced by the Jurchen invasion of North China to move south in 1127 and subsequently made Lin’an (modern Hangzhou) their capital, that an obsession with the flowering plum took hold. In South China the plum grew in abundance. A few late Song plum cultists took appreciation to extremes. The Southern Song recluse Lin Hong林洪 (active ca. 1131-61) wrote instructions for building a “Plum-Blossom Paper Tent梅花紙帳” and the scholar-official Zhang Zi張鎡(1153—1212)detailed the likes and dislikes of the blossoms. Bickford et al., Bones of Jade, Soul of Ice, pp. 30-43.

In his essay on the evolution of plum poetry, Professor Hans Frankel remarks on the increased importance of plum imagery among the literati: “Especially from the twelfth century on, practically every poet felt obliged to devote some poems to the blossoming plum, which was considered superior to other trees and spiritually akin to the man of letters.”Hans Frankel, “The Plum Tree in Chinese Poetry,” Asiatische Studien 6 (1952), p. 88. In painting, the literati, or man of letters, eschewed formal training in favor of spontaneous self-expression closely allied to the art of calligraphy. Since the educated man wrote with the brush throughout his life, the brush was a natural extension of his arm and an appropriate tool to express deep thoughts and innermost feelings. As Su Shi noted,

Why should the superior man study painting?
 The use of the brush comes naturally to him.Su Shi, “Ciyun shui guan shi” 次 韻 水 官 詩, translated by Susan Bush, The Chinese Literati on Painting: Su Shih (1037-1101) to Tung Ch’i-ch’ang. Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 36.

Literati painting (wenren hua文人畫), the antithesis of decorative beauty, did not seek formal likeness. Instead, the scholar-painter passed the natural image through the filter of his mind, a mind characterized by cultivation, spontaneity, and sensitivity to nature. Wielding brush and ink, the literati painted for their own pleasure or to communicate with like-minded friends, embedding themselves in meaningful images, including the monochrome ink plum (momei).Bickford, Ink Plum and Bickford, Bones of Jade, Soul of Ice, pp. 56-150.

The ink plum tradition (momei), founded by the Chan monk Zhongren仲仁 (d. 1123) and further developed during the Southern Song, gained added significance during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), when the Mongols ruled China. Exemplifying endurance under adversity, the flowering plum was a favored subject and certain scholar-painters, most notably Wang Mian王冕 (d. 1359), concentrated solely on the ink plum, creating powerful images of dramatic intensity. Beginning in the Southern Song, plum manuals were in circulation, such as Meihua Xishen pu梅花喜神譜 by Song Boren宋伯仁 (active ca. 1240) that trace the life cycle of the flowering plum, matching each with a poem, or Wu Taisu 吳大素’s Songzhai meipu 松齋梅譜 (ca. 1351), codify the multitude of ways to paint flowering plum, explicating the “do’s and don’ts.”Bickford, Ink Plum, p.185-196; Shimada Shujiro, “Shosai baifu teiyo,”1956.

Yang Hui’s A Branch of the Cold Season (suihan zhi嵗寒枝)Among the superb ink-plum paintings by less well-known early Ming masters is A Branch of the Cold Season (Sui han zhi ) 歲寒枝 by Yang Hui楊輝, from the early fifteenth century, a jewel in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum. The composition is masterful, the verticality of the curving trunks, branches and shoots on the right balanced by the horizontality and effortless grace of the extended branch extending out to the left. Above the branch, an inscription written by the artist’s contemporary, monk Zhen, details the circumstances of the painting’s creation, while below a prominent red seal identifies the scroll as having once belonged to the distinguished Tayasu House of the Tokugawa family.As one of the Gosankyo, or three branches of the Tokugawa clan, the Tayasu family started from Tokugawa Munetake (1716–1771), who was the second son of the eighth Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, and this lineage continues today. Throughout, the brushwork is playful, full of energy and verve.

While Yang Hui was clearly conversant with modes of plum painting and plum manuals, his use of brush and ink is delightfully natural and fresh, devoid of any trace of artifice. For example, in the Seattle painting, the artist freely varies the pace of his strokes, suggesting a bud with a quick turn of the brush or speedily outlining a petal, deftly varying the pressure on the brush so that the width of the stroke suddenly widens and suddenly narrows, the branch visible beneath. Whereas Wang Mian's brush handling is beautifully controlled and consistent, Yang Hui's is spontaneous, unpredictable and full of vitality.

Yang Hui’s A Branch of the Cold Season, like the preponderance of plum paintings, conveys a message of goodwill and auspiciousness.  Monk Zhen's inscription  reveals that Yang Hui painted this parting gift for his friend Mr. Hong Suichu (Hong Chun洪春, 15th c.), who is about to leave for Fujian, as an expression of  “inseparable friendship” and wishes for top honors in the civil service examinations. The inscription reads as follows:

“Mr. Hong Suichu [Hong Chun, 15th c.] is about to take a trip to Qimin (Fujian). His friend, saddened by his departure, did A Branch of the Cold Season (Suihanzhi), as a present for him. This is not only an expression of their inseparable friendship, but also a sincere wish [for the top honor in the examination] that someday Mr. Hong will win the prize of the ‘Earliest Spring’ and be ‘champion of all flowers.’ May Mr. Hong treasure it!”

Then, Monk Zhen composes a poem, citing the early Song poet Lin Bu林逋 (967–1028), who was an ancestor of the above-mentioned Lin Hong and “the exemplar of the flowering-plum recluse”:  

When the plum blossoms begin to bloom by the [West Lake] home of the Immortal Bu [Lin Bu, 967–1028],
Your boat will be sailing from the [Qiantang] River of the former premier Wu Yun [d. 484 b.c.].
Imagine some of these nights you will be thinking of each other in the bright moonlight.
The “dimly stirred fragrance” and the “sparsely interweaving shadows” will follow you wherever you go. 
                                   [signed]: At Huan'an [Temple], Shanxi, Monk Zhen

The poem refers to Lin Bu’s celebrated couplet:
Its sparse shadows are horizontal and slanted—the water is clear and shallow;
Its hidden fragrance wafts and moves—the moon is hazy and dim.
     —Lin BuLin Bu "Flowering Plum in the Garden on the Hill” translated by Hans Frankel in Bickford et al., Bones of Jade, Soul of Ice, p. 165.

Plum blossoms and moonlight, long seen as connecting those who are separated geographically, will link the two friends, Yang Hui and Hong Suichu, wherever they go. The literary and painterly imagery of Yang Hui’s A Branch of the Cold Season is evocative, resonating with the past and effectively combining poetry, painting and calligraphy, which are together known as The Three Perfections.Michael Sullivan, The Three Perfections, Chinese Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy. Thames and Hudson, 1974.

New Discoveries Confirm Artist: Yang Hui of early Ming

The Seattle Art Museum hanging scroll, A Branch of the Cold Season, has long been dated to the Yuan period and compared to ink plum paintings of the fourteenth century, especially those by Wang Mian.Bickford, Ink Plum, pp. 199-200; Bickford et al, Bones of Jade, Soul of Ice, pp. 72-72.   The Yang Hui seal on the painting led to the assumption that it was painted by the fourteenth-century Yang Hui, a mathematician of the Yuan dynasty who also excelled at painting. While working on the Seattle Art Museum's online catalogue, art historian Wang Yao-ting clarified that the Seattle painting must be fifteenth century, or early Ming dynasty, based on the fact that the recipient Hong Chun, also known as Hong Suichu, is recorded to have passed the fuxue maocai 府學茂才 examination during the Zhengtong period (1436-49).Lang Ying 郎瑛 (1487–ca. 1566), Qi xiu lei gao七修類稿, juan 31. Moreover, while the life of Monk Zhen of Huan'an Temple remains unknown, his poems are found in poetry collections of Ming writers.Based on Wang Yaoting correspondence with Josh Yiu. This evidence supports a fifteenth century, or Ming dynasty date, for the painting and its artist.

Given the fact that the scroll has no artist's signature, an important issue arises. Do the three seals on the Seattle ink plum painting (Zhong he仲和, Liangjian qing qi兩間清氣,We are grateful to Professor Kawai Masatomo and art historian Yukiko Shirahara, Chief Curator of the Nezu Museum, for bringing the hanging scroll in the Kyushu National Museum to our attention.and Yang Hui楊輝) belong to the painter of this marvelous ink plum or simply to a person who saw it or owned it? The remarkable discovery of another painting by the same hand leaves little doubt that Yang Hui (15th c.) is the artist of the Seattle ink plum.

A Second Ink Plum Painting by Yang Hui of Early Ming

In 2010 Professor Kawai Masatomo brought to our attention an ink plum painting in a private Japanese collection (fig. 1), which not only is strikingly similar stylistically to the Seattle ink plum, but also bears an identical seal, Liangjian qingqi 兩間清氣. In the painting of flowering plum in Japan, the positioning of this seal in the upper right leaves little doubt that it was the painter’s seal. Its positioning in the Seattle painting is also revealing. On the center left, the Liangjian qingqi seal is located squarely between and in close proximity to the Zhonghe and Yang Hui seals, indicating that three seals belong to the same person: Yang Hui of the fifteenth century.

Fig. 1: Yang Hui, Ink Plum, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Private Japanese Collection.

Unfortunately no factual information about Yang Hui of early Ming has come to light; however, his Liangjian qingqi seal and the poem by Wang Mian, which Yang inscribed on his ink plum painting now in Kyushu, suggests that he was an admirer of the classic Yuan dynasty plum master who died in 1359. The meaning of Yang Hui's seal Liangjian ("between heaven and earth") qing qi (pure air or spirit, referring to blossoming plum), refers to a well-known Wang Mian poem, inscribed on a large album leaf, entitled Ink Plum, in the Palace Museum, Beijing (fig. 2).  Wang Mian writes:

On the trees beside my family's Washing-Inkstone Pond,
One by one, the blossoms open, bearing traces of pale ink.
They don't want men to boast of their fine color.
There only flows their pure spirit, suffusing heaven and earth.Wang Mian's poem as translated by Maggie Bickford. Ink Plum, p. 209; pl. 26; see also note 50, p. 259, which states that a similar version of this poem is found in Wang Mian's collected works.

Once again it is the purity of the flowering plum and its subtle, nuanced beauty which is captured in painting and poem.

Fig. 2: Wang Mian, Ink Plum, Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Stylistically Yang Hui's two paintings (the one preserved in Seattle Art Museum and fig. 1) are not only remarkably alike in composition and execution—especially if you rotate the hanging scroll in the Japanese collection to a horizontal position—they also suggest the abiding influence of Wang Mian (fig. 2) on the ink plum tradition. Clearly the compositional similarities between Wang Mian and Yang Hui's two works reflect the distinctive natural growth patterns of the flowering plum tree, yet Yang Hui clearly belongs to the literati ink plum painting tradition, in which Wang Mian, who lived just one century earlier, was the dominant figure.

While the life of Yang Hui of the Ming dynasty remains a mystery, his paintings, especially Seattle's A Branch of the Cold Season, attest to his fresh, playful approach to wielding the brush and express his sadness over the departure of his friend and hope for his success in the exams which he likens to the triumphant flowering of the plum in the cold.

© 2013 by the Seattle Art Museum


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