Orchids and Rock

Artist: Gyokuen Bonpō (Japanese, ca. 1348–after 1420)

Period: Muromachi period (1392–1573)

Date: late 14th–early 15th century

Culture: Japan

Medium: Hanging scroll; ink on paper

Dimensions: 39 9/16 x 13 1/8 in. (100.5 x 33.4 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick, and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1975

Accession Number: 1975.268.38


Bedecked in garlands, the dancing pair
Combines their rival fragrances.
One must sip their precious dew.
Who could fashion anew these deep red tassels?
…dashed off in remembrance of the Minister of Chu.

With the final stroke of Gyokuen Bonpō smoothly inflected brush, the semicursive calligraphy of his inscription is visually united with the expansive, flowing rendering of supple leaves and fragile blossoms. The image of orchids and rocks, cherished in the literati repertoire as symbolic of the scholar's purity of heart, loyalty, and integrity, is unmistakably rooted in the lore of Qu Yuan (ca. 343–277 B.C.), the "Minister of Chu" of Bonpō's poem. Bonpō here draws not only on the imagery and poetic diction but also the characteristic meter of Qu Yuan's Li Sao (On Encountering Sorrow), the elegiac poem lamenting the world in which his loyalty was as unrecognized as the fragile, hidden orchid, while ambitious slanders, like gaudy weeds, won favor. Bonpō's allusion to his model is overlaid with feeling: the two orchids refer to his friendship with Gido Shushin, his mentor in Zen as well as in the arts of poetry and painting. The idea that poetry and painting were an integral part of Zen life also pervades this lyrical image.