Detail of orchids in a planter, from Portrait of Yinli, Prince Guo (1697-1738). China, Qing dynasty, 1731 Purchase—Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and partial gift of Richard G. Pritzlaff, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S1991.95

Coinciding with the National Museum of Natural History's annual orchid show, the Sackler will present twenty works related to orchids in Chinese painting, ranging in date from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century.

The cymbidium orchid (Chinese: lan) has been cultivated in China for hundreds of years. Since the time of the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE), the cymbidium has been associated with principled, moral gentlemen whose talent and integrity go unrecognized by the powers that be. Over the centuries, various literary and philosophical works attributed other virtues to the orchid, such as friendship, loyalty, and patriotism. Because of these associations, members of the scholar-official class came to identify strongly with the flower.

The cymbidium orchid became an independent subject of Chinese painting during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Artists created meticulous depictions of the orchid employing outline and color. From the thirteenth century on, most scholar artists chose to paint the leaves and blossoms calligraphically, using only ink. Following the Mongol conquest of the Song in 1279 and the founding of the Yuan dynasty, the "ink orchid" took on strong overtones of loyalty to the fallen regime.

The subject also held appeal for certain groups that flourished at the margins of society. Monk artists belonging to the Chan school of Buddhism, for example, appropriated the ink orchid for their own purposes during the fourteenth century. Similarly, while the plant remained perennially popular among scholar artists, during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties (16th–17th century) the ink orchid also became a mainstay for a coterie of renowned courtesan painters, many of whom formed romantic liaisons with prominent scholars of the time.

Twelve of the fifteen paintings on view in The Orchid in Chinese Painting belong to the ink orchid tradition. Two scholar's rocks and three ceramic bowls used to hold the blossoming bulbs will also be displayed.

The exhibition Orchids: A View from the East, on view at the National Museum of Natural History from January 29–April 24, 2011, will also show the significance of orchids in China's cultural traditions and horticultural practices.


Portrait of Yinli, Prince Guo, with orchids in planter (right, front) probably by Mangguri (1672–1736). China, Qing dynasty, 1731 Purchase—Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and partial gift of Richard G. Pritzlaff, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S1991.95

Yinli, Prince Guo, is captured in an elegant, informal pose by Mangguri, a Qing dynasty (1644–1911) bannerman who enjoyed a successful career as an official and who was also known for his ability as a painter. Mangguri once had the great honor of being asked to paint a portrait of the Kangxi emperor (reigned 1662–1722).

Prince Guo was apparently very fond of having his portrait painted, given the number of likenesses of him that survive, and Mangguri seems to have painted most of them. The prince commissioned images of himself that projected a self-image as an introspective man of scholarly erudition and refined sensibilities. The inscription on the painting is a poem written by the prince:

Humbled that through my kinship to the throne,
I was allotted a scepter in the prime of life,
I shall hold fast to the Way of antiquity,
And hope to preserve it without transgression.
Availing himself of this fine white silk,
That my figure may be transmitted on it,
The painter was indeed a marvelous hand,
Who erred in neither ugliness or beauty,
What is stored within is displayed without,
He has captured here my character as well.
Refraining from any wanton extravagance,
I shall follow in the footsteps of the former sages,
And by the bright window, at my clean desk,
Thrice replace the worn-out bindings on my books.

(Translation by Stephen D. Allee)

An orchid in a deep forest sends out its fragrance even if no one is around to appreciate it. Likewise, men of noble character hold firm to their high principles, undeterred by poverty.” Confucius (551–479 BC)

January 15–July 17, 2011 @ Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Orchids have been a part of Chinese culture for many centuries, permeating Chinese history, legends, literature, and art. Since ancient times, orchids have been celebrated in China for their beauty and fragrance, and appreciated as symbols of nobility, friendship, and refinement.

Orchids in Chinese Art and Culture

This reverence for orchids expresses itself in many ways, from the contemplation of a single plant to an enthusiasm for color, new forms, and mass display. Age-old traditions have evolved into the extravagances of the contemporary Asian orchid world.

The Chinese philosopher Confucius compared the virtuous man to an orchid. Echoing this thought, Chinese artists sometimes placed orchids in their work to evoke the Confucian qualities of humility, integrity, refinement—in fact, all the virtues of a perfectly cultured gentleman and scholar.

Orchids in Chinese Medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine, the body is a small universe containing an array of opposing forces—yin/yang, cold/warm, passive/active, and more. Medicines, often including plants and herbs, balance those oppositional forces. Orchids are essential ingredients in many Chinese medicines that are still used today.

The oldest Chinese pharmaceutical text, Shen Nong’s Materia Medica [Shen Nong bencao jing], lists 364 plant, animal, and mineral substances and their medicinal properties. It includes orchids such as various Bletilla and Dendrobium species.

Orchid Extravaganza

Today, the world of orchids is one of color and excitement. Orchid cultivation has become an international industry in which China and many other parts of Asia compete. Orchids that originated in all parts of the world are now grown in mass quantities in Asia.

Leading the way is Taiwan, which is unrivaled in Phalaenopsis orchid cultivation and marketing. By making these blooms at once more extravagant and more available, Taiwan’s orchid breeders have changed the way people around the world see orchids. The annual Taiwan International Orchid Show is an eye-dazzling spectacle of horticultural showmanship.

February 26, 2011 from 11am to 3pm @ the National Museum of Natural History


Bletilla striata. Photo © Dr. William Mathis Photo