Acorus gramineus (Chinese sweet flag)  a perennial herbaceous plant thriving in marshes, streams, or paddy fields, has long been a favorite of Chinese scholars.

Sweet flag in the wildness

But hold on! We’re not talking about the large, toxic variety. The one cherished by scholars is a petite, evergreen variant, typically found growing on stones by the brooks and streams. Known commonly as Stone Sweet Flag, it leaves a unique fragrant scent on your fingertips upon touch, as if whispering an ancient secret.

Drawn by Jin Nong, Qing Dynasty

The Origins and Popularity

Since the Tang and Song Dynasties, this grass has found its place on the scholars’ desks. The study room for these scholars was a sanctuary of thought and enlightenment. Here, they spent countless nights in solitude, immersed in study and contemplation.

Sweet flag Bonsai, Wang Daming

This solitude was silently shared only by a pot of Sweet Flag and a tastefully rugged scholar’s rock beside it, accompanying them in their intellectual pursuits. Take, for instance, the renowned Song Dynasty poet, Su Dongpo, who considered the plant a confidant, composing over thirty poems in its honor.

Study Room, Wang Daming

Chinese scholars attribute four traits to the Stone Sweet Flag – enduring hardship, residing by clear springs, content with simplicity, and accompanying the white stone.

These virtues, encapsulated in the plant’s elegant simplicity, are highly respected and admired by the scholars. Such is their affection for this plant that they have assigned a ‘birthday’ to it, on the 14th day of the fourth lunar month each year.

How to Appreciate

This kind of grass bonsai carries the grace of the scholar and mirrors their unique aesthetic sense. Ancient scholars idealized the beauty of the Sweet Flag in its short, slender, and dense form.

Sweet flag Bonsai, Wang Daming

Through meticulous trimming, controlled fertilization, and careful exposure to light, the plant’s stature becomes smaller and more refined, paralleling the lean bamboo painted by Zheng Banqiao, a renowned Qing dynasty painter. This aesthetic restraint is an attempt to contract physical desires and delve into the realm of the scholars’ spiritual pursuit, with the Sweet Flag symbolizing this very spirit.

A Resurgence

Sweet flag Bonsai, Wang Daming

For a while, this traditional aesthetic art form and interest around the Sweet Flag seemed to fade, until a certain someone— Wang Daming, fondly known as the “Grass Sage of the South”— brought it back to life.

Wang Daming

Since his retirement from Jiangnan University, Wang has dedicated his time to exploring and showcasing the traditional beauty of the Sweet Flag. His cultivated plants, each valued at tens of thousands of yuan, are never for sale. Similarly, he does not charge admission for the Sweet Flag bonsai exhibitions he organizes. He’s even created a garden for these bonsai in the style of a traditional Chinese garden.

Wang Daming, by Yitiao

If you ever find yourself in Wuxi, viewing Sweet Flag is a must, and understanding it, well, you cannot do so without knowing about Wang Daming.

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