The Symbolic Meanings of Flowers in China

China is a culture of flowers. Its traditional art and customs are infused with symbols and habits that pertain to flowers. Even the name of Chinese people, hua ren, when spoken in a different tone could mean “flower people”. Most ancient paintings depict flowers of some kind, most often the plum blossom and tree peony. Orchid, chrysanthemum, bamboo, water lily, Chinese rose, azalea, camellia, osmanthus, and narcissus all also have strong associations in Chinese culture and feature on various occasions.

Each flower carries its own particular symbolism based on the plant’s health, heartiness, delicacy and color, among other factors. So, there are special rituals regarding the giving of flowers as gifts. Different flowers are to be given for different occasions, and giving the wrong flower might cause offense or awkwardness.

The red color of both the Chinese rose and the pomegranate flower symbolizes luck, and so these flowers are traditional birthday or graduation gifts. Lilies are customary gifts for weddings or even close friends because they represent both unity of spirit and 100 years of love. Chrysanthemums signify an ease of life and are often used as Buddhist altar offerings. The lotus has a long Buddhist history, as well. It symbolizes purity and holiness because of the way that it grows up beautifully out of miry, muddy water. Orchids signify fertility and should be given to expectant mothers or newlyweds, while the narcissus flower is believed to bring forth hidden talent and should, therefore, be bestowed upon someone who is looking for career advancement.

Flowers sometimes carry negative meanings in Chinese culture, as well. For instance, the flowers from poplar trees can easily be blown apart, so they represent an unfaithful spouse or lover. Likewise, duckweed is a floating flower that has no roots, which contrasts with the Chinese moral value placed on harmony and family unity. Any flower or plant that has thistles or thorns is an obvious nod to pain and unhappiness.

With such a rich flower culture, it is interesting that China has never declared an official national flower. This is, perhaps, because each flower’s meaning is unique and important. Since no two are alike, choosing just one as a national symbol would be difficult. In recent times, the Chinese government has debated about if, how and which blossom to deem the national flower. The peony, which is known as an emblem of wealth and honor, is a strong contender for the role of national flower. The plum blossom is also favored because it symbolizes the five Fu, or blessings, and is supposed to bring luck. Both flowers are enormously popular among Chinese people.


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