These leaves from Shitao’s album depict orchids, with an accompanying verse on the opposite page. Orchids are a popular subject for brush painting, in part thanks to their simple, rhythmic form. According to the Met’s entry on this object, “the calligraphy of the poem, in the manner of Zhong You, with its softly undulating strokes and gently rising and fading ink tones, simulates the swaying orchid leaves and blossoms.”
The best-known or at least longest-established orchid in China is the cymbidium (lanhua), which is noted more for its fragrance than its floral display. The opening lines of the verse, which quote the Classic of Songs, allude to this:
Words from a sympathetic heart
Are as fragrant as orchids
The orchid is regarded as a symbol of spring, and the verse goes on to develop this association.
Together with the plum, the chrysanthemum , and the bamboo, the orchid is known as one of the “four gentlemen of flowers.”