The Immortal Chrysanthemum in East Asian Art

A chrysanthemum is an extremely important Asian symbol in the study of Eastern art forms. One should remember that a chrysanthemum is a very particular kind of plant which is cultivated for its elaborate, ball shaped flowers. Typically, this plant blooms in the late summer and autumn seasons. It has a characteristic odor and comes in a variety of colors. These colors would include red, yellow, and white. Chrysanthemums are also one of the earliest seasonal and literary themes observed in Japanese lacquer wares. They appeared in the 13th century tebako and kogo (incense containers) of the Kamakura period (1185-1333 CE). In addition to blooming in the early autumn season, chrysanthemums are a metaphor in tribal art for longevity. This is probably due to their lengthy blooming cycle. Furthermore, the dew of the chrysanthemum is often considered the elixir of immortality. The symbol of a chrysanthemum floating in water alludes to the notion of this sort of immortality in Japanese art. In the Japanese language, it is called “kikusui.”

The Chinese poet Tao Yanming (365-427 CE) had a legendary love for the chrysanthemum too. This love was revealed in one of his classic poems this way: “Plucking chrysanthemums beneath the eastern fence, leisurely I caught a glimpse of the Southern Mountain.” This poem was loved by many mostly because of its essential portrait of the literati lifestyle. This existence involved unfettered independence from society and employment. It was based upon improving one’s soul through travel and intellectual pursuits. In the guarded lives of Japanese nobility and of the samurai warriors who influenced the powers of government from 1185 to 1868, such an existence as this one seemed ideal. The poet Ki no Tomonori (850-904 CE) is quoted in the Kokinshu and develops the theme of chrysanthemums too. He writes: “Like the hoar frost that settles on the overgrown chrysanthemum hedge, In my garden I’ll melt away yearning for you.” In this poem, Ki no Tomonori follows the fashion of his day about frustrated, embittered love. The loneliness of the theme is captured well in a design on an early 20th century suzuribako in the Avant Collection.

On the exterior of this particular box are two fans. They possess landscape designs. One is placed at the upper right, which is layered beneath a second fan at the lower left. This display shows a composition on the theme of chrysanthemums by a brushwood fence near a stream. This recalls the chrysanthemum theme of both Chinese and Japanese poetry. There is also the potential for kikusui or “the elixir of immortality.” On this fan, chrysanthemums and brush clover of an early fall appear in the foreground at the lower left. They are counter balanced by cherry blossoms of early spring in the faraway trees.

The combination of two fans seems to invite a comparison between Chinese and Japanese literature. There is Tao Yuan Ming’s encomium to the chrysanthemum. A Genji theme or scene from a noh play seems to also exist in the Japanese way of looking at this work. Neither fan seems dominant though. The fan in the right position is seen first by the viewer who reads from right to left. The left fan is shown laying over the right one. On the interior of the box, the artist has chosen a beautiful and modernistic treatment for an ancient theme. The box is decorated elegantly with gold, silver, and brown takamakie. There is also silver hiramakie with a little red detail and gold kirikane on the black ground.

Often in the study of ancient works of East Asian art we find this kind of interdependence between two great cultures: China and Japan. In no way does this diminish the historic distinctions between these two civilizations. However, it does suggest that the connections run deep in both cultures as Japan has no doubt been influenced by China. Therefore, such connections in the past are important to note while each culture retains its own unique taste. In any case, the chrysanthemum is a symbol of immortality, longevity, and even the loneliness experienced from a lost love. Chrysanthemum art work in the Eastern tradition is therefore another excellent addition to your Asian home or office. The beauty of this symbol surely gives anyone a sense of the eternal!

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