In order to understand where the chrysanthemum’s symbolism comes from, we need to go back to the years 1500-1400 BC. Chrysanthemums were already being grown in China as a flowering herb at this time. They were viewed there as an exulted plant with special properties. So special that only noblemen were given permission to plant them in their gardens.
Chrysanthemums can therefore also be found on the finest Chinese porcelain, painted in the refined Asiatic style. Generally speaking the chrysanthemum symbolises nobility in China. There is even a town in China named after chrysanthemum. Ju-Xian, better known nowadays as Xiaolan Town or Zhongshan City, literally means ‘Chrysanthemum Town’.
The chrysanthemum was introduced into Japan in the eighth century, where the Emperor soon declared the flower the national symbol. The chrysanthemum also served as the source of inspiration for the imperial seal. In that seal the chrysanthemum is depicted as a single flower with sixteen petals. This recurs in many places - nowadays the flower can be found on every Japanese passport and the 50 yen coin. The Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum also still exists. This is the highest honour that can be bestowed on Japanese citizens, and it is awarded by the Emperor. That makes the chrysanthemum the only flower in the world to which such a high honour is attached.
The chrysanthemum is not just an imperial symbol in Japan. Chrysanthemums are also viewed as a symbol of a long and happy life. Every year the Japanese celebrate the Festival of Happiness at which the chrysanthemum is lavishly celebrated. To honour emperors, their thrones were covered with chrysanthemums in the past. The Japanese court is therefore also known as the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Jacob Breynius was the first person in Europe to describe the cultivated chrysanthemums as we know them today in 1689. However, the flower became famous thanks to the doctor and botanist Carolus Linnaeus who gave the chrysanthemum its name. “Chrys” means “gold-coloured” in Greek, and refers to the flower’s original colour. “Anthemon” means “flower”, together making the name “golden flower”.
The chrysanthemum is one of the four Junzi, which loosely translated means ‘gentlemen’. Plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum together make up ‘the four Gentlemen’. Each of these gentlemen represents a different season: the plum stands for winter, the orchid for spring, bamboo for summer and the chrysanthemum for autumn. These Junzis are still used in paintings throughout Asia.