Stand by Me

Published 23rd January 2015

A Chinese porcelain plate painted with The Three Friends.

A Chinese porcelain plate painted with The Three Friends.

Why is painting of Bamboo, Pine and Prunus a popular motif on Chinese Porcelain?

All too often nowadays friendship is seen through the fickle lens of social media and is measured in terms of numbers, something many of you might consider doesn't really amount to true friendship. But what does constitute a true friend, what are the qualities one looks for in a friend? The Chinese certainly had a view.

A common motif on Chinese porcelain especially that painted in blue on white depicted Bamboo, Pine and Prunus, the so called three friends of cold winter. First mentioned by Tang poets in the 9th and 10th century, they were admired as they remained constant during the winter and early spring months when most other vegetation had withered away.

Pine with its evergreen needles and Bamboo with its evergreen leaves are emblematic of longevity and steadfastness and the flowering Winter Plum or Prunus is allegorical of sturdy independence as it chooses to flower when nothing else does. They are symbolic of endurance and discipline - although they are different they stand together, the pine robust against the wind and the bamboo bending, but never breaking.

It is said that the Three Friends also represent the three main religions of China Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism and the latter considered the Three Friends to represent the highest scholarly ideals of a Confucian gentleman that of perseverance and moral integrity. Perhaps one should just accept the aesthetic beauty of pine, bamboo and prunus when they are painted in association, certainly their very nature seems to lend itself to the artist or calligraphers brush with their simple straight foliage and angular branches. What more could you ask of any true friend other than they stood by you when times were hard and everyone else had gone, perhaps that is why the Three Friends have remained a popular motif on Chinese porcelain and painting for over a thousand years?


  • Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood

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