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A Look at the ‘Noble Virtues: Nature as Symbol in Chinese Art’ Exhibition

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Plants, flowers, animals, and birds have always played an important role in Chinese art. Appearing in paintings, artifacts, and decorative objects, these natural elements are rife with symbolic meaning in Chinese culture.

It’s this rich interplay of art, nature, and symbolism that inspired Joseph Scheier-Dolberg, the Oscar Tang and Agnes Hsu-Tang Associate Curator of Chinese Paintings at the Met Museum to compose the new exhibition Noble Virtues: Nature as Symbol in Chinese Art.  

“This [exhibit] came about because I was thinking about a portion of the collection that hadn’t been shown as much recently,” he says. 

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Noble Virtues: Nature as Symbol in Chinese Art exhibition at the Met Museum.
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Chinese nature paintings are full of symbolic meaning and spirituality.
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Birds are auspicious figures in Chinese culture, as revealed by the Met Museum painting exhibition.

Drawing mainly from The Met collection, Scheier-Dolberg pulled together over 100 works in the huaniaohua, (bird-and-flower) category, including painting, calligraphy, and decorative arts. All explore the themes of plants and animals along with their deeper significance. 

“In addition to being images of nature, oftentimes these plants and animals carry symbolic dimensions with them,” Scheier-Dolberg says. 

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Bamboo paintings are an important part of the Met Museum exhibition.

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A key theme, for instance, is bamboo, which occupies two galleries at the start of the exhibit, displaying works that range from the 14th to the 18th centuries.

“Bamboo is hardy; it can withstand adversity. That’s the key symbolism of bamboo that people would identify with—even during difficult times, it’s able to grow and survive,” Scheier-Dolberg says. 

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Left: Windblown bamboo, Xia Chang (Chinese, 1388–1470). Right: Bamboo in wind and rain, Shitao (Zhu Ruoji) (Chinese, 1642–1707)
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Left: Bamboo and rocks, Li Kan (Chinese, 1245–1320). Right: Windblown bamboo, Yang Han (Chinese, active late 17th century)

Another layer to its symbolism in Chinese culture is that bamboo’s hollow core inside its tough shell represents a person who is emotionally stable and rational. 

The bamboo gallery is followed by several other galleries devoted to plum blossoms, pine trees, and other auspicious plants and animals important in Chinese culture such as peonies, phoenixes, and cranes. 

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Left: Panel with five phoenixes in a garden, China. Right: Cranes, peach tree, and China rose, after Shen Quan (Chinese, 1682–after 1762).

Along with bamboo, the plum blossom—which represents righteousness and bravery—is one of the four plants known as the “Four Gentlemen,” which also include the orchid and chrysanthemum.

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Left: Plum blossoms, Jin Nong (Chinese, 1687–1773). Right: Magnolia, crabapple, and tree peony, China.

Shown in the Douglas Dillon Galleries at The Met Museum, the exhibition is drawn from a Chinese painting and calligraphy collection of about 3,000 pieces, all light-sensitive and consequently unable to be on display for more than five months at a time.

The amazing pieces can be experienced in person until January 29, 2023 and will remain available for viewing online afterwards.  

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