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Birds, Plum Blossoms, and Bamboo in Winter
16th century

Ma Lin , (Chinese, active early to mid-13th century)
Ming dynasty

Hanging scroll mounted on panel; ink and color on silk
H: 165.9 W: 106.0 cm
China

Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1916.478

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Set among a few scattered stems of snow-dusted bamboo, a large flowering plum tree is the main focus of this painting. The plum generally blooms around the Chinese lunar new year in mid- to late January, when most other vegetation lies dormant. All at once, blossoms sprout from supple shoots along the dark, leafless branches, signaling the imminent arrival of spring. Though its delicate flowers survive only briefly in the harshness of winter, the tree may live for many years, its limbs and trunk slowly growing into oddly configured gnarls and angles.

In Chinese tradition, plum blossoms came to symbolize purity of character, courage in the face of adversity, the transience of beauty, and the rebirth of hope. From early times, poets in China played off these various associations and the blossoming plum gradually evolved into a favorite metaphor for the impoverished scholar and recluse from society. In times of turbulence and uncertainty, it was also used as an emblem of the nation as a whole.

A spurious signature of the thirteenth-century court painter Ma Lin has been added on the lower trunk of the plum tree, while the inscription in the upper right corner, ostensibly by the late-Ming calligrapher Wang Duo (1592–1652), is also a forgery. This is most likely a work by a sixteenth-century painter associated with the Ming dynasty court.