Orchid, Nobleness in Solitude

Orchids (lan, 蘭) have been very popular and in cultivation for centuries in China and other Eastern Asian countries. In China, orchids are not only prized for their fragrant blooms and graceful appearance, but also have a moral impact on Chinese culture and society.

The Chinese believe it is a great honor to give or receive one of these extraordinary orchids because they are considered symbols of virtuosity and friendship. Confucius called these magnificent plants the "King of Fragrance" around 500 BC, and they are still known by this nickname today.

The image of orchids has been conveyed in an awful lot of Chinese literature, being praised as a flower of noble and tenacious character. Orchid, a flower of such fragrance and beauty that stands along, is just like a man who maintains his principles even though the world does not recognize his talent.  

Orchids’ first association with humanity was said to be made by Confucius, as he said in Confucius’ Family Dialogue: “The orchids let out their fragrance even if there is no one around to appreciate it. Likewise, men of noble character will not let poverty deter their will guided by high principles and morals.”

The light yet lingering unique fragrance of the orchid also had a profound effect on Confucius. He said: “If you are in the company of good people, it is like entering a room full of orchids. After a while, you become soaked in the fragrance and you don’t even notice it. If you are in the company of bad people, it is like going into a room that smells of fish. After a while, you don’t notice the fishy smell as you have been immersed in it.”

The orchid’s fragrance was used to portray the sublimity of character which Confucius believed everyone should strive for and which formed the basis of his moral preaching, and to emphasize the influential power of people of such character.

The symbolical significance of the orchid’s fragrance has many other implications in traditional Chinese culture and society. For instance, the dwelling-place of a young girl is called "orchid-room"; A beautiful woman's breath is like the perfume of an orchid. Also, the word lan occurs in women's names only. Mu Lan, a legendary heroine of a famous poem written during the Northern Dynasties (AD 420-589), who disguises herself as a man to serve in the army in her father’s place, is respected for her tenacity and nobleness.