Language of the opera: orchid-speak

I’m not a huge fan of opera music, but I do love the theatre for its ‘suspension of belief’ and colorful costumes. How stories are enriched through staging, lighting, and language fascinate me. On learning that Chinese opera performers use orchid petal formations with their hands to convey meaning I was astounded. The concept was most intriguing. (For more on conventions of Chinese opera see this article.)

Human hands have five digits that bend and twist in predictable manners. The Chinese orchid has five petals pointing in pleasing directions. The hands of a performer could be manipulated to focus attention; an observer’s eyes usually are drawn to the flowers at the heart of a grassy framework of orchid leaves. Hmm.. Yet another of Professor I-Hsiung-Ju’s insights from his instructional books on the four gentlemen has me off and playing in my art room.

Orchid petal handiwork

The Beijing/Peking opera actor credited with codifying (if not inventing) hand signals with definitive meanings was one Mei Lanfang. Just look at his hands in these two publicity shots:

meilanfangl  meilanfangr

You can read more about him here.

And watch a short video or slide show on Youtube of the man at work. We have a Gustav Thomas to thank for his interest in researching and tracking down images to showcase the talents of this opera favorite of the early 20th century.  (See a second version without Chinese script but music.)

Here’s an illustration I found online on some of those hand ‘messages’ used in Chinese opera:



Curiously my hunt also turned up similar hand gestures that are supposedly conventions in East Indian dancing:


I can’t read the words, but some of the gestures convey meaning.

Ju writes:

No matter which action it performs—holding, waving, pushing, pulling, pitching, throwing—the lady’s hands assume the attitude of orchid flowers. Facing up or bending down, under the sun or suffering the rain, and so on.   The wrist is the base and the fingers are petals. Her hands are always as beautiful as orchid flowers.

My artistic quest

Ju presented six hand gestures to illustrate his point about the language of the orchid, complete with sketches of a hand and an orchid flower. I isolated each, and aligned the corresponding hands to orchids in a row to study the petal and finger placements. Two were executed with the left hand and four with the right.

The thumb and the pinky finger usually represented the petals often shown in somewhat horizontal positions, with two of the three middle fingers reserved for the two upright central petals (you usually paint those first) and the remaining one to represent the third petal that appears at angles to the floral base.

Thus far, the analogy made sense.

Having recently acquired a new long, springy brush and some Japanese watercolors that mixed a pleasant orchid purple, I was in the mood for some orchid painting. As I studied Ju’s sketches I realized I was twisting and turning my fingers, so I grabbed a camera. Just as I thought, two of the gestures were not easily posed. Mei Lanfang’s talent just stepped up a couple of notches in my estimation. How did he do that?

Following are copies of Ju’s sketches, photos of my hands, and finally some brushwork efforts for each of the six hand messages.

1. Come Over:

comeoverorchid  comeover


2. You don’t

youdontorchid  youdont



3. Let me think:

letmethinkorchid  letmethink


I discovered Ju’s fingers and petals differed in their pose for this one.

4. I’m Surprised

imsurprisedorchid  imsurprised


5.  I’m Delighted

imdelightedorchid imdeligted


6. Sad

sadorchid sad


Reflections and outcomes:

  1. Checking out Ju’s orchid petal messages pushed me to explore the orchid more closely. The petal strokes are derived from bamboo leaf strokes, which I’ve been working at for several months now.
  2. I’ve got a new respect for opera, albeit Chinese opera. (Forget the music; pay attention to the hands!)
  3. Painting ‘sad’ didn’t always yield a sad-looking little orchid; sometimes it just appeared delicate, alone, waif-like.
  4. Usually you paint the two smaller, inner petals first, and then add the other three outer ones. I found that in order to achieve some of the apparent ‘finger crossing’ I had to paint outer petals first and then dab in the central ones.
  5. In at least two of Ju’s renderings (I’m Delighted and Let Me Think) the finger placements differed from the petal formations. Concentrating on trying to get the petals placed accurately meant my strokes were more labored, less fluid.
  6. I found my petals had blurry edges (too much water/too slow execution) and that I often could not tell which were intended as the two smaller central petals and which were the longer, outer ones. In hindsight I attributed the difficulty in controlling edges and shapes to the business of trying to copy the models exactly, and this affected how they looked: blurry, sloppy, poorly related to one another, often obliterating instead of overlapping and providing depth of field.
  7. I discovered that if some petals were painted AWAY from the calyx central point (instead of towards it) the petal placement was a tad easier to replicate. Note the traditional technique calls for the ‘TOWARD centre’ stroke direction and not the AWAY. I used to think this was a hard and fast rule, but once having observed master painter John Nip use an occasional TOWARD stroke in order to get a certain shape, I realize this rule (like many others) can be broken in order to achieve results.

I tried making a little reference card showing the six orchid petal formations I’d studied:


Overall I’m not so sure these ‘opera-speaking’ orchids will show up in my paintings, unless I get comfortable enough with orchid petal strokes to paint them more ‘at will’. Right now, my brushwork is too labored (hampered by the desire to replicate position?) to yield dancing, fluid petal strokes. BUT….I did get better at bamboo through practice, so maybe there’s some hope for my ‘operatic’ orchids. Perhaps once I can see all five petals in relation to one another at one glance,  then writing that flower would be more natural, easier to accomplish.

Time will tell, but right now some ‘blues’ are calling—a bird and a flower.






This entry was posted in painting orchid. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Language of the opera: orchid-speak

  1. Julie Taistril says:

    What a brilliant resource you have created. I look forward to reading it every month. Keep up the good work, spreading the techniques of Chinese brush painting.

  2. Thank you Julie:
    I am so grateful to the resources within my two art groups for the sharing and encouragement and it seemed only natural to take it online when you consider the power of the internet! This art form is endlessly fascinating.
    The Rat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s