The shadowy, newly blossomed plum tree and crescent moon painted on the interior of a black-glazed tea bowl (fig. 1) and delicately incised into the center of a green-glazed bowl (fig.2), both of which are now on view in the Great Hall Balcony, illustrate a complex web of cultural allusions. Understood as references to the ephemeral nature of life, plum blossoms also symbolize hope and endurance: They are the first flowers to bloom in early spring as winter begins to fade.
Before the twelfth century, plum trees and flowers—which were considered superior to other trees, and often equated with cultivated men—became predominant artistic themes, and references to the subtle fragrance of the plum on a moonlit night were common in poetry, as in this line of poetry from Lin Bu (967–1028): "Its hidden fragrance wafts and moves—the moon is hazy and dim."
One can imagine drinking tea from the darker bowl, or wine from the celadon, and watching the moon and plum appear while remembering this and numerous other references to the plum, its fragrance, and its delicate beauty in a moonlight garden.
After the twelfth century, the plum and crescent moon, at times combined with other natural elements such as a dramatic rock and additional plants (fig. 3), became standard motifs in Chinese ceramics. Around the same time, "portraits" of famous poets and writers also began to appear on pots. The scholar-gentleman seated on a mat near the bank of a lotus pond on a spectacular jar (fig. 4), dated as 1587, is identified as Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073) precisely because he is looking at this pond (fig. 5). A noted philosopher and official, Zhou dug a pond in the front of his house, planted lotuses, and wrote a famous piece entitled On Loving the Lotus. It reads in part:
I love only the lotus for rising from the mud unsullied, bathed by clear waves but not bewitching. . . . The farther away one is, the purer the fragrance. Upright and elegant, it can be viewed from afar but not toyed with.