Sho Chiku Bai (松竹梅)

The Three Friends of Winter

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Sho (松) – Pine

Chiku (竹) – Bamboo

Bai (梅) – Plum

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Sho-Chiku-Bai is an ancient and auspicious Japanese motif  (actually pronounced using their Japanized Chinese pronunciations as this was, not surprisingly, originally a Chinese construct),  finding its way into kimono design, sumi-e (monochrome painting), porcelain, sake brands and a thousand other Japanese products, works of art, ads and commodities.  By invoking Sho-Chiku-Bai the painter or designer sums-up and distills-down a host of feelings, emotions and attitudes for the viewer, reader, wearer or drinker.

These three “Friends of Winter” essentially provide an allegory for weathering hard times through their various attributes.  A pine tree’s roots are tenacious and will borrow deep, or, as need be, find their way to hold-fast on even the craggiest, rock-strewn outcropping.  They endure, no matter the circumstances.  Bamboo finds its strength in knowing how to give and bend without breaking when even the strongest winds blow.  In Japan the plum tree is the first to bud and blossom in the late winter, even when its limbs may remain snow-laden:  the plum gives us hope, showing us that spring and new opportunities for beauty and joy are just around the corner.  Strength and tenacity, the ability to bend but not break when adversity swirls around us, the promise of hope even when coldness won’t release its grasp on us.  The Three Friends of Winter, Sho-Chiku-Bai — 松竹梅 —  our three friends of winter.

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One of the 3 Friends. Snow lays heavy on a pine, but the roots run deep. Asago, Japan. Early 1991.

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Here are a few examples (dozens and dozens of examples could be shown, mind you) of how the Sho-Chiku-Bai motif is incorporated into various media and products:

*  A Sho-Chiku-Bai rubber stamp, for sale by “Art Neko” (Art Kitty).

*  Art:

Suzuki Shuitsu (1822-1889)- bamboo, plum and pine (needles). Rimpa school.

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*  Sho-Chiku-Bai sake (one of hundreds of  松竹梅  sakes):

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A short vid of a couple of Imari plates (late Meiji Period) in my modest collection where if you look for them, you can see the stylized Three Friends in the center of each plate:

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    • Karl Maria
    • February 23rd, 2010

    Thank you for sharing this. It came at just the right time. I’ll offer in return a bit of wisdom from Albert Camus: “Au milieu de l’hiver, j’apprenais enfin qu’il y avait en moi un été invincible.” (In the depths of winter, I finally discovered that there lay in me an invincible summer.)

      • letsjapan
      • February 23rd, 2010

      Perfect. Synchronicity with Camus, indeed. But you know that ever since the
      mid-to-late 19th Century the French have been all about Japan. Heh.

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