Confucius says the desire for food and sensuality is basic to human nature, and under the scrutinizing lens of modern science this truth takes a new turn. The universal seduction of taste is found to hide a secret; laboratory science has now discovered that over ninety percent of culinary taste is accounted for by the sense of smell. No wonder classical Chinese poets have described how fragrances ‘assault’ the senses, and why over the centuries the blossoming of seasonal flowers has been a popular excuse for literati parties. The Twelve Monthly Flower Goddesses celebrated by Chinese folk culture have always been equally celebrated for the loveliness of their blossoms and their distinctive fragrances.
China of the 1990 was marked by dramatic political upheavals and the sudden onslaught of consumerism, and competing ideologies started to make alternative claims on people’s senses and modes of thought. Artists were naturally stimulated by the new reality, and one of the main challenges for creativity was for artists to stay true to themselves amidst the radical changes. Cai Jin, a sensitive soul, was among the innovators, but what stimulated her art was not the social-political changes surrounding her. The fresh freedom she sensed came neither from the opening of the economy nor from social rebellion, but from a space for human nature that radically diverges from that claimed by any ideology. The encounter of a row of decaying banana plants in the countryside awakened a carnal sensuality so powerful that she plunged into a painting career that over the years produced an extended series of works exploring the magic of this experience. It was as though the body found a natural communion with the world that was free from any constraints of society. Unexpectedly and wonderfully, Cai Jin had responded to the calling of the Flower Goddesses.
The traditional Flower Day Festival comes a month after China’s lover’s festival, the First Lunar Full Moon Festival, and it celebrates the birthday of all flowers. One might speculate that this birthday festival was designed to celebrate human nature, a nature that is grounded on food and sensuality, as Confucius says. Underneath the banality of carnal pleasure and bodily necessity is hidden a truth that mobilizes humans in a way no religion or ideology is capable, because it offers a space for personal freedom that lies beyond the human world, and co-exists with social life. The secret creed of the Twelve Flower Goddesses seems to be encoded in floral fragrance -- a key that unlocks desire and allows humans to connect with their truest nature.
It is no wonder that Cai Jin remains enamoured of the Flower Goddesses and continues to stay true to her Floral Fairies!
Written on National Day, 68th year of the People’s Republic of China