A huge flower basket duly appeared at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on September 25, six days before China celebrated its National Day. The flower basket has been part of the country's National Day celebrations since 1986.
The basket of bright-colored silk flowers at the heart of the capital city is a highlight of the holiday's adornments, brightening up the urban scenery and attracting visitors to snap pictures with it.
This year, the flower basket, themed Blessings to China, stands at 18 meters tall.
Wang Suizhi is one of its designers. She is a master and one of the first nine inheritors of traditional Chinese floral arranging, a national intangible cultural heritage item. This artful skill has given her the opportunity to participate in the preparations of many important events across China.
Life is a flower
Wang, a retired senior engineer with Beijing Flower and Plants Co. Ltd., has engaged in floriculture since 1973. She now works with the company as an advisor.
She first participated in the making of the huge flower basket for National Day celebrations in 1997. The giant "bouquet" was 12 meters tall and 11 meters wide. "It was China's first flower basket of that size," Wang told Beijing Review.
In the late 1990s, the Chinese market didn't have a sufficient supply of supersize silk flowers. Wang and her coworkers had to make most of the silk flowers by hand, with no references to go by. "Professionally speaking, this was the most difficult task I'd ever faced," the 74-year-old recalled.
Besides being one of the lead designers of the giant flower baskets for many years, Wang was also the lead designer of the bouquet for medalists at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Presenting Chinese culture through floral arranging has long been her career goal.
When designing the Olympic bouquet, Wang, instead of using peonies, a flower long treasured by the Chinese people as symbolizing prosperity, opted for the red Chinese rose, another native plant. "Peonies blossom in spring whereas Beijing 2008 took place in summer. It would have cost a lot if we'd gone with off-season cultivated flowers," she explained.
Every bouquet contained six types of flowers, including nine roses. According to Wang, the number six symbolizes the smooth flow of things and the number nine, the highest single digit and considered a lucky number in traditional Chinese culture, represents the utmost respect for athletes from all over the world. "Connotation is the essence of the traditional Chinese flower arrangement," Wang said.
The giant flower baskets at Tiananmen, too, present an annual window into China's age-old cultural practices. "The design and materials of the giant flower baskets adopt traditional elements to express Chinese culture," Wang said. The round baskets, brimming with traditionally auspicious decorations, overflow with flowers and fruits like peonies, magnolias and persimmons, which all symbolize prosperity, she added.
According to Wang, the annual floral extravaganza features a different theme every year. For example, the one in 2018 celebrated the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening up. But how to highlight reform and opening up with flowers?
"After reform and opening up started in 1978, many non-native flowers were introduced into the Chinese mainland. Anthurium [a genus of about 1,000 species of flowering plants] became available to us years later. I think it's one of the signs symbolizing reform and opening up," she said. So she used anthurium as the main gem in the basket. In Wang's eyes, the red heart-shaped flowers also signified how the Chinese have united as one to work hard and forge ahead.
The past decade has witnessed some changes in the baskets' production process. The application of 3D positioning technology since 2014 is one of them. "It makes the flower arrangement more accurate and efficient," Wang said.
An ancient art
The traditional Chinese flower arrangement dates back 3,000 years and thrived during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when monographs, such as A History of Chinese Flower Arrangement, were published. However, the ancient art declined in the second half of the 19th century as China fell into disarray in the wake of domestic turmoil and foreign aggression.
From then on, and up to the 1980s, Chinese people knew little about the traditional Chinese flower arrangement and they weren't interested in it, Wang said. "Fortunately, as the times change and people's incomes rise, the art has been revived."
Floral arranging has become popular in China in recent years. "Not only practitioners of the industry like florists but people in general learn the art to lift their sense of cultural and creative fulfillment, as well as their quality of life," Wang said.
The art was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage item in 2008 and Wang was among the first few inheritors. Seven years later, China's first museum documenting the genre—the Museum of Traditional Chinese Flower Arrangement—opened in Beijing.
Wang retired in 2003 and opened a flower arranging studio in Beijing in 2016. Sometimes, she hosts workshops on the traditional Chinese flower arrangement inside the studio. "We are more confident in our culture now. Traditional floral arranging is reaching more people, who show an increasing enthusiasm for it," Wang said.
An international scent
The integration of Chinese flower arranging with Western styles also features high on Wang's agenda. "As inheritors, we need to upgrade our skills in line with the changing times," Wang said.
Wang went to Germany in 1984 to pursue further studies. The stay broadened her vision. Before traveling to the West European country, she used to arrange flowers by following her teacher's instructions. "But when I asked why we arranged them that way, my teacher didn't have the answer," Wang said. It was in Germany that she first learned about bouquet composition.
Following her return to China, Wang started reading monographs and tried to merge the traditional Chinese flower arrangement with modern Western concepts. In the following three decades, she kept visiting her German peers once every two years to communicate with them and hone her skills.
"The Western style highlights the flowers' shapes and colors whereas the Chinese style emphasizes their connotation and follows the beauty of their natural lines," Wang explained. "The combination of both styles lends my works a sense of contemporaneity."
Before COVID-19, Wang had taken part in international floriculture events on behalf of China, winning much applause.
The most impressive one took place in 1998 when they first visited Eastern Europe. "Before our arrival, our peers in the Czech Republic and Slovakia generally assumed Chinese floral arranging had originated in Japan. They had no idea about the Chinese flower arrangement," Wang said. Wang and Li Haibo, another engineer with Beijing Flower and Plants Co. Ltd., presented China's traditional floral arrangement in Prague, with an interpreter introducing Chinese floriculture to visitors. The presentation was a hit.
When they gave the second demonstration, many more people showed up, some of whom had to sit on the windowsills. "Gathering such a large audience abroad wasn't easy. And we're proud to present China's culture through floral arranging," Wang said.
Expos are another platform for Wang to introduce the ancient genre to more interested parties. For instance, Wang reproduced China's earliest flower arrangement exhibition, originally set inside the imperial palace of the Southern Tang Dynasty (937-975), at the 2016 World Rose Intercontinental Exhibition in Beijing. "Showcasing traditional Chinese flower arranging at international expos is a good way to make the genre known to more people," Li told Beijing Review.