The Three Friends of Winter


Though it may not feel like it today, it’s technically still winter in Pasadena. But nicer weather means it’s a great time for you to investigate these plants in our courtyard garden!

The Three Friends of Winter, or bamboo, plum and pine, have inspired the visual and literary arts of East Asia for centuries. Because these plants flourish in the winter, they are symbols of perseverance in the face of adversity. Pine and bamboo stay green throughout months of cold and snow, and plum trees are often the first to flower as the weather warms. Because of the inspiring symbolism, these Friends are a common motif in East Asian art and are often associated with the scholar in private life. One of the earliest uses of this phrase is found in Lin Jingxi’s (林景熙, 1241-1310)  Record of the Five-cloud Plum Cottage (五雲梅舍記) from The Clear Mountain Collection (霽山集) in which is written, “For his residence, earth was piled to form a hill and a hundred plum trees, which along with lofty pines and tall bamboo comprise the friends of winter, were planted.”

Right now at Pacific Asia Museum, you can see the Friends in both our courtyard and our galleries! Our exhibition The Garden in Asia (more in this recent post) showcases these plants among others in its examination of how the garden and nature have influenced artists in Asia over the centuries. In China, gardens were and still are venues for quiet reflection or social gatherings, as well as the pursuit of knowledge and the arts such as calligraphy, music or painting. Such pursuits would often be guided by a manual like the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (芥子園畫傳), seen here at the top. First published in 1679, the Mustard Seed Manual became one of the most well-known painting guidebooks in China and beyond (this version dates to 1908, demonstrating its ongoing popularity). The manual gave painters wide-ranging templates for how to render many kinds of plants, animals, architectural and natural features of gardens, as well as historical examples of paintings to study. These pages feature paintings by Chao Xun (1852-1917) after examples by Tang Yin (1470-1523) and Shen Zhou (1427-1509). The manual can also be understood to highlight elements that should be included in thinking about and designing gardens. The lower page shows a scholar-recluse in a small hut surrounded by ‘essential’ elements such as rocks, water, an enclosing wall, a banana plant and bamboo (far right). On the top page, the pine serves as the centerpiece of the composition.

Flowering Plum Branch

This large scroll painting of a flowering plum branch by Jiang Tingzhen can be seen at the beginning of the exhibition. In addition to perseverance, the plum also is a symbol of trustworthiness: it blooms in snow, before other flowers, and promises the return of spring every year. The strong brushstrokes in the branches create a contrast with the soft petals, emphasizing the visual metaphor for a warm spring after a harsh winter. This painting likely had a personal meaning for Jiang, who was likely one of the scholar-recluses of the late Ming dynasty. During periods of political uncertainty, scholar-gentlemen retreated into their gardens and focused on study and arts. The end of the Ming dynasty, when this was likely to have been painted, was certainly one of these periods. European trade had increased dramatically and had sparked an increase in silver from Japan, the New World and Europe. In the early 1600s, however, new policies in Spain and Japan sharply restricted the influx of silver to China. This threw the economy into chaos as the value of silver dramatically increased as compared to copper, another metal used as currency. Around the same time, an ecological event now known as the “Little Ice Age” brought climate changes, floods and famine. A widespread epidemic and an earthquake made matters worse, and it was thought that the emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven (the divine approval of an emperor’s rule). Shortly after, a Manchu invasion and a peasant uprising ended the Ming era. Given the desperation widely felt at the time, it is not surprising that scholar-gentlemen would have retreated to their gardens and immersed themselves in the arts.

the Three Friends in the gardenIn our courtyard, you can see all three Friends of Winter for yourself. As our Southern California “winter” begins to warm into spring, it’s the perfect time to experience the anticipation of renewal. The plum tree is already forming buds, and the green pine and bamboo maintain a lush ambiance among the bare trees. After visiting the exhibition, take a moment and place yourself in the mind of the scholar-recluse among the Friends in the peaceful setting of our courtyard. ~CM

Jiang Tingzhen (dates not known), Flowering Plum Branch, China, late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); c. 17th century, Ink on paper, Gift of the Grilli Collection, 1986.79.24

The Mustard Seed Garden Manual, China, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911); 1908, second month of lunar calendar, Publisher:  Zhang Fu Ji Shu Ju Shi Yin, Shanghai, Ink on paper, Gift of Harvey House, 1976.35.58


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