The Meaning of Sho Chiku Bai (Pine, Bamboo, Ume Plum)
When Japanese people describe auspicious things, we often use the compound word composed of 3 separate words that mean plants “Shochikubai (松竹梅)”, or Sho Chiku Bai, which actually has a meaning of “pine (Sho: 松)”, “bamboo (Chiku: 竹)”, and “ume plum (Bai: 梅)”, respectively.
It is said that the origin of the Japanese term “Shochikubai (松竹梅)” is derived from “Saikan no Sanyu (歳寒三友: Three Friends of Winter)”, a painting subject loved by ancient Chinese painters.
The Chinese painting subject, Saikan no Sanyu designates the 3 plants, “Sho (松: pine)”, “Chiku (竹: bamboo)”, “Bai (梅: ume plum)”, as its theme, but unlike what the Japanese Shochikubai means, those plants in the picture weren’t originally the symbol of auspicious things.
The Meaning of Japanese Shochikubai (Sho Chiku Bai)
The painting subject “Saikan no Sanyu (歳寒三友)”, or The Three Friends of Winter, was transmitted from China to Japan during the Heian period (794 to 1185) when the word “Sho (松)” meaning “pine” came to symbolize a lucky thing, for the tree is evergreen so Japanese people associate it with longevity.
Subsequently during the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573), the word “Chiku (竹)” meaning “bamboo” came to stand for a lucky thing, and so did “Bai (梅: ume plum)” during the Edo period (1603 to 1868), since bamboo has a vigorous vitality and the plum tree blossoms in the winter.
Today in Japan, in many cases, the stuff to which the word “Sho (松: pine)” is assigned refers to a supreme thing, “Chiku (竹: bamboo)” for a deluxe thing, and “Bai (梅: ume plum)” for a regular thing, and those items named Sho, Chiku, Bai are typically used to indicate the grade or quality of themselves.