Ancient Culture: Flower Arranging Across the World

Flower arrangement has a long history in China. (Image:  maxpixel /  CC0 1.0)
Flower arrangement has a long history in China. (Image: maxpixel / CC0 1.0)

Flower arranging is one of the oldest decorative art forms. And China has a pretty rich history in this field, with the earliest records of flower arrangement seen around 207 BCE to 220 CE during the Han era.

The culture

Practitioners of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism played an important role in the development of flower arrangement culture in China. They used to place cut flowers on altars and created paintings with a strong representation of flowers. Buddhists selected flowers to make basket arrangements depending on their symbolic meanings. For instance, tiger lilies symbolized fertility, while bamboo represented longevity.

Chinese gave immense attention to the line when arranging flowers. Traditional styles stress calligraphic and linear lines. As a result, flowers that were arranged in a vase often had the look of a top-tier painting. Flower arrangement philosophy is also deeply influenced by the yin-yang concept. Strong colors, upright stems, and well-shaped blooms were seen as yang, or masculine. In contrast, flowers with lighter shades that had a soft appearance were considered yin, or feminine in nature. A natural-looking container was often selected to hold the flowers.  

The Chinese flower arranging culture is often at odds with its Western counterpart. While Western flower arrangements tend to focus on strong symmetry and geometry, Chinese tradition emphasizes asymmetry and tries to achieve a beautiful presentation that is disharmonious. Western styles also give preference to the colors of the flowers when deciding on an arrangement, while the Chinese style considers the season when choosing flowers.

Flowers with light colors are seen as feminine in the Chinese flower arranging tradition. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Yuan Hung-Tao, a famous exponent of flower arrangement, advises that the blossoms should not be arranged either too chaotically or too prosaically. He is of the opinion that two or three varieties of flowers in a single composition should be enough. Yuan believes that the selected flowers must be short, thick, and sparse. “Avoid symmetry, straight columns, and lines, and above all, don’t tie up the flowers with knots. Follow botanical principles; the appearance should be natural like… an essay that flows without constructions and rigid conclusions. If branches are parallel and colors but red and white, is the arrangement not like the trees before the magistrate’s court or the inscriptions on gravestones?”, he said (East Pavilion).

Other oriental cultures

In addition to the Chinese, other prominent oriental flower arrangement traditions are that of the Japanese and Koreans. The Japanese style is called Ikebana, which emphasizes the wholeness of nature. Their decoration style tries to create a link between the indoors and outdoors. Containers and plants are selected to reflect the seasons. Great importance is placed on flowerless branches and leaves, as well as blossoms.

The Japanese flower arrangement style is called Ikebana. (Image: maxpixel / CC0 1.0)

The Ikebana approach is divided into three styles. The first style, Shin, is a formal approach and focuses on arranging the flowers in a linear, upright manner in a bronze container. The second style, Gyo, is a semi-formal style that looks to arrange flowers in sweeping lines rather than in a linear manner. The final style is So, which is the informal way of arranging flowers where they are kept in bamboo vases or clay pots.

In Korea, flower arranging is believed to have developed along with tea ceremonies. Traditionally, plain white-ware ceramic bowls and vases were used to hold the flowers. Ferns and grasses are used quite a lot. In winter, evergreen sprigs and pear blossoms are used. In modern times, the Korean flower arrangement style has shifted to using green-ware ceramics.

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