Every culture has a flower or several which is part of the bedrock of that culture. It may be part of a custom or a tradition, but the meaning has been carried forward for hundreds of years.
China is certainly no exception. Native blooms appear throughout every medium of art and literature, and have done so for centuries.
From antiquity to modern times, these flowers have featured heavily, and still carry the significance and the admiration they had centuries ago.
With the sheer size of China, it encompasses a rich and varying climate, allowing for a wide variety of flora not seen in a lot of countries.
Read on to learn more about the Chinese flowers, which are deeply embedded within Chinese culture.
Quick Facts About China
The third-largest country in the world, China sits in Eastern Asia, and has the largest population in the world at 1.44 billion people.
It borders 14 other countries, and China itself covers around 9.6 million square kilometers, which is almost the entire size of Europe put together.
China has both deserts in the north, and subtropical forests in the south, as well as some parts of the Himalaya and other mountain ranges.
It has a number of wildly different climates, depending on the region, where all manner of plants and animals thrive.
The plants included on this list are integral to Chinese culture, as well as being widely admired for their beauty and sheer variety.
Types and Meanings of Chinese Flowers
Part of the Oleaceae genus, Osmanthus has a unique look, with sprays of white flowers growing in between leaves on the stem of the tree.
It’s the flower of August, and a traditional symbol of romance. It’s also admired for its strong scent.
The sweet osmanthus flowers are used with black and green tea leaves, and this tea is linked to the city of Guilin, which translates as “Forest of Sweet Osmanthus”.
The plant can reach up to 39 feet tall, and the flowers that form are usually white. It also produces small fruit, which contains one seed per fruit.
In Chinese culture, the lily represents happiness and good fortune. Some believe that these flowers can help people forget their problems, because the flowers are so beautiful.
As lilies are perennials, which mean they die off once the season has ended, and come back next spring, they symbolize new beginnings, and renewal.
They’re also given as wedding presents and on a woman’s birthday, as lilies are supposed to bring sons into a family.
There is a proverb attached to these flowers, “bǎinián hǎo hé” which translates as “happy union for one hundred years”.
Lilies are given at all occasions to help brighten someone’s day.
Chinese Rose Flowers
Rosa Chinensis, or the Chinese Rose, belongs to the Rosaceae genus, which encompasses all roses. Roses we know today were bred from species found in China.
This particular type can bloom year round, and it has the weighty title of the “Queen of Flowers”, referring to its unparalleled beauty.
These flowers come in white, cream, yellow, pink, and red. It’s also the flower that represents at least 50 of China’s cities, which should give you an idea of its popularity.
Sweet Olive Flowers
From the same family as Osmanthus, Osmanthus fragrans, sweet osmanthus, or the sweet olive is also native to China.
One of the most popular flowers within China, it’s renowned both for its beauty and for its uses. People make jam, tea, and traditional medicine with this plant, its usefulness cementing its popularity.
Nelumbo Nucifera, or the lotus flower, is admired around the world for its beauty, but especially so in China. They grow in bodies of water – natural pools, or aquariums and ponds.
The lotus flower has a lot of symbolism and has been entrenched in Chinese history for a very long time.
The plant itself takes a lot of energy to bloom, and they’re regarded as a symbol of overcoming hurdles unscathed.
This is because the flowers spring from the muddy water, something so beautiful emerging from what can often be murky water.
The color of the lotus isn’t diminished or affected by the muddy water. When it blooms, it is nearly always perfect, and the color it was designed to be. In this way, lotuses also represent a period of renewal, after coming out of the other side of problems in a spiritual sense.
The lotus flower is also important to Buddhism, where it represents peace, wisdom, and perfection. It’s one of the eight precious items in Buddhism.
It’s believed that the lotus flowers bloom in Beijing on the lunar date 8th April, which is the Buddha’s birthday, as well as on 8th January, which is the day of the lotus.
Chrysanthemums, or sometimes referred to as Dendranthema morifolium, are also important to the Chinese culture.
Chrysanthemums have the advantage of being a perennial, where these gorgeous architectural blooms can be enjoyed year after year.
These flowers usually spring up in late fall, and come in yellow, pink, white, purple, and red. They’re also a symbol of autumn, and of the ninth month in the lunar calendar.
Chrysanthemums symbolize longevity, as the Chinese word for chrysanthemum sounds like jū, which translates as “to remain”. You’ll find their characteristic blooms in countless works of art.
A beautiful, captivating perennial flower, orchids are loved all over the world, but especially in China. Unsurprisingly, they signify beauty, elegance, and wealth.
They can also symbolize a married couple, and an orchid in a vase represents unity.
Orchids are part of the Orchidaceae genus, and can nearly be found all over the world.
There’s around 28,000 species of orchids, and that list will most likely only get bigger as we discover more species.
Magnolia flowers (see also Magnolia Flower Meaning and Symbolism) are used in Chinese medicine, and the trees were once so valued that only the Emperors were permitted to own them.
These gorgeous trees have the curious characteristic of producing flowers before the foliage. The leaves only form after the flowers have faded, pushing through the spent blooms.
Magnolia flowers symbolize beauty.
The white magnolia is the official flower of Shanghai.
The Yulan Magnolia, which hails from central and eastern China, bloom from late winter through spring. Since the Tang Dynasty, which dates from 618-901, Buddhist monks have regarded the flower as a symbol of purity.
It’s often planted in streets, not only to give them more color and beauty, but because the plant itself is heavily lemon-scented, and absorbs toxic gases.
See further down the article for white irises. Any other color of this beautiful flower is a symbol of spring, and it’s believed that eating the flowers will help prolong life.
Irises are also draped over doors on May 5, the lunar day, to repel evil spirits.
Part of the Paeoniaceae family, these beautiful plants are native to Asia, Europe, and Western North America.
The type we’re focusing on is the Paeonia x suffruticosa, the tree peony.
It was originally bred for the skin of its roots, which were used in traditional medicine. It’s known as the ‘queen of flowers’, which represents love, honor, wealth, affection, and feminine beauty.
Red peonies are especially admired, as the color red represents life.
You can recognize them by their huge blooms, with ruffled petals, and they usually come in red or white, though other colors are available.
Another plant which blooms with very large flowers, the Hibiscus, is part of the Malvaceae plant family.
It’s another bloom on this list that puts on a dramatic display. This flower carries the symbolism of glory and fame, and to enjoy both of those while they’re in “bloom”.
Like the flower itself, sometimes they don’t last very long. They’re gifted to both men and women.
Like the Peony, the Hibiscus flower has a lot of medicinal value as well as being beautiful.
Chinese Plum Blossom Flowers
Among the oldest flowers native to China, the Chinese plum blossom flower is also known as Prunus mume, and it has the particularly breathtaking trait of flowering in winter when the air and the ground is full of snow, making a special display.
A large flowering plant that’s very easy to propagate, the Camellia japonica L. holds a special regard as it’s used for making teas and oils, which have a number of uses.
Azaleas are shade-loving plants which produce their flowers during spring, in a multitude of colors.
They’re part of the Rhododendron genus, which can be confusing, as it’s subdivided with azaleas and “true” rhododendrons, the latter having five anthers per flower.
They’re highly poisonous, and in some places, giving someone a bouquet of rhododendrons and azaleas in a black vase is a death threat!
However, the Chinese symbolism of the azalea is much nicer. These plants symbolize contentment and wealth, and are the symbols of several provinces.
Chinese Flower Color Symbolism
Nature is inherent in Chinese culture, and it forms an important part of life and philosophy.
This is the same for color. Different colors carry specific meanings, and the color of a flower only adds to its significance.
The color pink signifies celebration, happiness, and life’s joy.
Yellow flowers carry the connotations of wisdom, wealth, and good luck in business.
White flowers represent peace, innocence and honor.
Blue flowers stand for rarity (probably linking to how rare blue flowers are in nature), individualism, and uniqueness.
Purple flowers embody elegance, harmony, and hope.
Red flowers represent life, empathy, and longevity.
The Cultural Significance of Flowers in China
Chinese New Year
Each year, Chinese people celebrate spring with a festival, heralding everything that comes with it – the buds, the leaves, more color, more life, and the warming weather.
Flowers enjoy a special popularity during spring, on the Chinese Lunar New Year.
It welcomes the new calendar year, while there are several customs to invite good luck but also to prevent bad luck.
Plants and flowers during this period symbolize new growth, and every home needs to have fresh flowers on the first day of the new year.
If a plant comes into flower on New Year’s Day, this is a good sign. It suggests that the new year will be healthy and full of wealth.
Each month of the year has its own flower, but this changes depending on the people and the place it is significant to.
Spring is usually linked to magnolias and orchids, Summer has the peonies and the lotus, Autumn welcomes the Chrysanthemums, and Winter heralds the plums and bamboo.
New Year Markets & Flowers
At the new year markets, there are certain flowers that are traditionally sold during this time, and all carry different meanings.
- Eggplant: is believed to heal all illness.
- Bamboo: resilience under difficult conditions. Bamboo is used throughout the year, as it’s part of the Four Gentlemen, which include the plum blossom, the orchid, and the chrysanthemum. They all represent the four seasons.
- Chom Mon Plant: invites tranquility to you.
- Narcissus: represents prosperity.
- Plum blossom: to bring luck.
- Sunflower: symbolizes a good year ahead.
The Negative Significance Behind Some Plants
There are some negative symbolism attached to some flowers, just like some customs can be performed wrong, and therefore invite bad luck.
Some examples of negative associations with flowers are listed below.
Duckweed is believed to be bad luck, as this plant doesn’t develop roots, and goes against the Chinese people’s principles of family, which their culture places a heavy importance on.
You may be surprised to see red roses under this heading, as we usually associate red roses with love and romance, and all the positives that come with them.
Some believe that sending red flowers – especially roses – to someone who is ill is bad luck.
In this case, red flowers signify blood. Some even hold to the belief that sending red roses to someone who is sick will result in their death.
It’s believed that the best colors for hospital flowers are yellow and white, which are the colors of yang life.
White irises are the traditional florals used for funerals, therefore they symbolize death. All white flowers can carry this meaning, as well as representing ghosts.
On the day the funeral takes place, it’s customary for guests to leave money in white envelopes for the family, and it needs to be an odd number in order to avoid bad luck.
The customs at the funeral are largely dependent on the deceased person, on their position within their own family, and their age, among a number of other factors.
This article is designed to give you a glimpse into the heart of the reverence held in China and its people for flowers and their meanings.
The flowers themselves appear in all manner of art, and you can see the love that people have for them throughout the ages.
A passion so embedded into their culture carries a huge amount of significance, through traditions passed on from generation to generation.