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Nature often represents the changing of seasons

Posted on April 2, 2020 at 3:45 PM by Guest Writer

~ Dr. Tonglu Li, Associate Professor of Chinese, Iowa State University

The different seasons are often shown in art by changes in nature. How do different cultures represent the seasons and nature? Here are 4 Chinese scrolls from the Creating Global Understanding exhibition (currently closed) that depict the seasonal imagery with flowers and birds.

Living through the colonial rule of Japan in Taiwan (1895–1945), Cai Xuexi (1884– ) was mostly a self-taught artist. After graduating from public school in 1901, he became a clerk in the colonial government and taught himself painting. In 1910, he formally studied painting with a Japanese artist. Ten years later, Cai opened his own private art school Xuexi Art Studio, and mentored Guo Xuehu (1908–2012) in his school, who later became an influential artist.


Finished in 1924, these four hanging scrolls embody a typical Chinese style that has taken centuries to mature. The hanging scrolls usually come in even numbers and are meant to be displayed side by side on the walls of large inner spaces. The themes and motifs of a scroll set are often interrelated. They could either be shanshui (landscape), huaniao (flowers and birds), or renwu (figure painting). These four scrolls add a dimension of time by showing the flowers and birds in the four seasons. 

Chinese painting, often consists of three elements:

  1. The image itself.

  2. The inscriptions (in black) that take up the empty spaces intentionally left by the artist.

  3. The seals (in red) that serve as a signature and a way to express the intent and taste of the artist.

The inscriptions, which themselves could be fine calligraphy works, may be a poem or notes on the contexts for understanding the painting. These elements mutually illuminate and complete each other, and should be considered as integral and indispensable components in appreciating the artwork. 

Chinese painting has been heavily influenced by Daoist philosophy which prefers nature to humanity. If the landscape painting often provides a panoramic view of nature, the flowers and birds painting tend to provide a close-up view of nature. Meanwhile, in most scrolls the natural objects depicted are images that have acquired certain cultural meanings throughout history. 

The flowers and birds in the four seasons created by Cai are a mixture of the representation of natural beauty and the expression of cultural meanings. Read together with the poems on the paintings, the imagery could be an expression of the artist’s sorrow and nostalgia for a lost homeland, as well as his endeavor to retain his pure cultural identity. In terms of techniques, the artist mainly relies on xieyi (the freehand brushwork). Occasionally, he also applies the techniques of gongbi (meticulous and refined).

Spring is represented by the peony, which became popular beginning in the Tang Dynasty (618–907). It is regarded as the “king of all flowers”, the “color of the nation.” The Song Dynasty scholar Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073) calls it “the rich and noble of flowers.” With these auspicious implications, the peony was regarded as the national flower during the Ming and Qing (1369–1911) era. 

Summer is represented by lotus, which is rooted in the mud but remains pure and beautiful. Lotus has long been included in folk songs. Probably because of the influences of Buddhism, it becomes the symbol of the uncontaminated beauty and purity against the polluted surroundings, or the Buddha himself. The cranes in the painting have been the carriers of the fairies and became the icon of longevity, loyalty and nobility. 

Representing the fall, chrysanthemums are associated with the famous East Jin hermit-poet Tao Qian (365–427), who abandons his official post and returns to search for his genuine self in nature. Tao has a famous poem on chrysanthemums. Beneath the calm and retired appearance lies a spirit of resistance. In addition, the two birds, crested myna, also demonstrate a maverick attitude. 

Plum trees are probably are the only trees that blossom in the winter in most places of China. Appreciation of the plum flowers can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 AD), becoming increasingly popular over time. Besides their natural attractions, the plum flowers symbolize a resilient attitude towards the harsh environment, and a pure spirit unyielding to external pressures. 


Hanging Scrolls: Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall, 1924 by Cai Xuexi (Taiwan, 1884- ) Ink and paint on paper. Gift of Drs. David G. Topel and Jay-lin Jane Topel and Mr. and Mrs. Tung-Hsiang and Chih-Fei Cheng.  In the Topel and Cheng Art Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, IA. UM2014.256, 257, 258, 259

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