Sunday, 6 February 2011

Plum Blossom Lore

Yamamoto Baiitsu (1783-1856)

Although it's only the first week of February, the last few days have seemed quite spring-like.. despite the snow that is still visible on the mountains to the north of Kyoto, and the dead grass that covers the banks of the Kamo River. It should have been no surprise to find that February 4th is the day known as Rishun, which marks the start of spring in the old Japanese calendar. This early spring period runs through the 18th of the month, and is closely associated with plum blossom.

The ume - more properly an apricot, it seems, but generally known as plum - is just coming into flower during this period, though it won't come into full bloom until near the end of the month. I associate it particularly strongly with China and Japan, and it often appears in literature and art here, not to mention as a favorite plant in gardens. The sweet scent of a plum orchard in flower is quite strong, and if you go to a plum bonsai exhibition, such as the one held in Nagahama every year, almost unbelievably concentrated and quite beautiful, even - I would think- for non-flower lovers.

The plum tree itself is quite striking, with its delicate flowers, characteristically a mix of full blossom and new buds set against the angular and harshly pruned branches, making it a popular motif in visual art, both in China and Japan. (If I had to make a generalisation, I would say Chinese paintings tend to emphasise profusion, and Japanese ones, sparseness in their depictions.)

The particular angularity of the plum is also the subject of a proverb:
                     Sakura kiru baka; ume kiranu baka
It's stupid to prune a cherry tree - and stupid not to prune a plum - a comment on the failings of a 'one size fits all' policy.

The plum is also included among 'The three friends of winter' and 'The four gentlemen' (as the translations usually go) - traditional groupings of plants that often appear in art. The three friends, sho-chiku-bai, are pine, bamboo and plum, which all have positive associations connected with strength and endurance during the cold months of winter. The four gentlemen, shikunshi, is a closely related theme that was popular in Chinese art and later adopted in Japan. The plants - plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum, each represent one of the seasons, as well as noble virtues. In fact the word kun (jun Ch.) is one of those untranslatable words with connotations of nobility and virtue, but which tends to sound a bit hokey in English. It is Confucius's 'virtuous man'.

The four gentlemen also form part of the foundation of the art of ink painting - especially in the literati (and now hobbyist) style. As well as their symbolic nature, they also serve as a bridge for  well-practiced brush wielding scholars to move from the field of calligraphy into picture-making, using the same brush strokes they had been using for years, but in a more graphic role.

In Japan, there seems to have been little direct relation with the martial world, other than that provided by the cultural associations common to society at large. By way of contrast, the connections in the Chinese martial arts world are many and varied - and include a famous style of Northern boxing, Meihua quan (Plum Flower Fist/Boxing) and its off-shoots, as well as a number of forms in different styles that bear its name.

Nevertheless, there are several stories that feature plum blossom, with their own, uniquely Japanese, atmosphere.

Oshukubai - The plum where the nightingale dwells (bai is another reading of the character for plum)
By Tsuchiya Koitsu - from the Ohmi Gallery Website

This tale concerns the old plum tree of the emperor, which stood on one side of the entrance to the imperial palace, the Sakon no Ume, or plum of the left, along with its counterpart, Ukon no Tachibana, sweet orange of the right (sa and u are alternative readings for the characters left and right). Seeking a replacement, his courtiers found one in the garden of Ki no Tsurayuki (872-945), the famous poet. Before they carted it off (tree transplanting was a well developed art), Tsurayuki's daughter wrote the following poem, which she hung from its branches:

Choku nareba itomo kashiko shi uguisu no yado wa to towaba ikaga kotaemu
Since my lord commands, I can but obey.
but what shall I tell the nightingale when it cannot find its nest?

The emperor Murakami was obviously touched by this, and returned the tree, planting a cherry tree in its place. The nightingale (otoguisu or bush warbler, to be more exact), is often paired with the plum blossom in art - in fact Keats is said to have composed the first draft of 'Ode to a Nightingale' while sitting under a plum tree.

(Interestingly, Tsurayuki's poem in the famous collection Hyakunin Isshu (number 35) is about the plum blossom, where he compares its reliability to the changeability of the human heart.)

 Abe no Muneto
A more amusing anecdote concerns the aftermath of a rebellion by Abe no Sadato, who was beaten and slain after a protracted series of campaigns by Minamoto Yoriyoshi and his son. Yoshiie, Sadato's younger brother, Muneto, was brought back to court and condemned to exile. While he was waiting for the sentence to be carried out, a courtier, curious about this semi barbarian from the northern provinces, brings a branch of flowering plum and asks, "What do you call this?"
Muneto replied:
In my country, where I saw it often
we call it ume,
But for the true name,
we need a courtier to tell us.

Genda Kagesuye (by Kuniyoshi)
Kajiwara Genda Kagesuye
This fierce warrior fought at the battle of Ikuta (in the Gempei War, on the side of the Minamoto) with a branch of plum blossom thrust into his quiver (ebira), a reminder of his love  and was the inspiration for the noh drama of that name. During the battle, he lost his helmet, and the motif of a helmet with a branch of plum blossom was sometimes used in art.
There is a lot more to be said about him, but that will have to wait for another time. The same is also true of....

...Maeda Toshiie
Finally, I couldn't miss out the famous general Maeda Toshiie, who fought under Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and whose crest was the plum blossom, as you can see here:
Late 19th century print showing Maeda Toshiie in action - he was famous for his use of the spear

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