The Four Gentlemen (四君子), also called the Four Noble Ones, in Chinese art refer to four plants: the plum (梅), the orchid (蘭), the bamboo (竹), and the chrysanthemum (菊). The term matches the four plants with junzi, or "gentlemen" in Confucianism. They are common subjects in traditional ink and wash painting, belonging to the category of bird-and-flower painting in Chinese art.
The Four Gentlemen have been depicted in Chinese painting for more than a thousand years because of their refined beauty, as well as the moral characters with which the Chinese literati have imbued them.
The plum tree is renowned for bursting into a riot of blossoms in the dead of winter. Its subtle fragrance spills forth at one of the coldest times of the year, making it difficult to go unnoticed. Though neither the plum tree nor its blossoms are very striking, they manage to exude an otherworldly exquisiteness and beautiful elegance during the desolation of winter. The demeanor and character of the plum tree thereby serves as a metaphor for inner beauty and humble display under adverse conditions.
The orchid represents the spring. The beauty and grace of the orchid is fragile in form, with no violent tendencies. Like the plum blossom, its fragrance is never overpowering, symbolizing humility and nobility.
The stalk of the bamboo is hollow, which came to symbolize tolerance and open-mindedness. Furthermore, the flexibility and strength of the bamboo stalk also came to represent the human values of cultivation and integrity in which one yields but does not break.
The chrysanthemum blooms in the cold autumn air and foretells the coming of winter, which symbolizes the virtue to withstand all adversities. It was the favorite flower of the great poet Tao Yuanming (陶淵明, 365-427), a towering figure in Chinese literati culture.