Because it blooms in February, before donning its leaves, the Chinese flowering plum (Prunus mume) is associated with winter and is regarded as a symbol of strength in the face of adversity; in addition, its blossoms symbolize feminine beauty, and its weathered trunk, the humble scholar. These various and noble associations made the plum an appealing subject for traditional literati painters in China, Korea, and Japan. This painting clearly depicts aged plum trees; smooth new shoots spring from rugged ancient branches, so that a variety of textures challenges the endless capabilities of brush and ink. In this painting, overlays of dense black ink suggest rough bark peeling from the massive old trunks.
Although this leaf is not signed, the seals at the beginning and end of the poem indicate that it was painted by Cho Hûi-ryong, the foremost Korean painter of ink plum blossoms during the first half of the nineteenth century. Extremely fond of plum blossoms, he is said to have painted plum trees on all the walls of his studio. The poem on this album leaf translates as:
Fabricating iron into a pen,
Snapping a twig into a hairpin,
Old moss suddenly regains its spring freshness,
[And] vitality harmoniously follows.
An aged crane wearing snow
Flies amongst steep cliffs;
Sitting cross-legged, a lofty monk
Completely empties [his mind] of mortal thoughts.
Translated by Hsueh-man Shen