After I posted the question about the saying "The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of them all," I got a few interesting responses that I thought I'd share. The first is about plants in Chinese artwork:
The four favorite Chinese plants, both artistically and poetically, are the plum blossom, orchid, chrysanthemum, and the bamboo. They are collectively known as the "Four Gentlemen" ("shi jun zhi" in Mandarin, "sei guan zhee" in Cantonese). If there is a four-panel screen or a four-sided lantern, these four plants will usually adorn it.
Plum blossoms are know for their hardiness (blooming in winter). The orchid is not the tropical plant, but a species with long grass-like leaves and small, dull-colored flowers. Its fragrance is equated with morals. Chrysanthemums are loved for their class and elegance. The bamboo, standing straight and tall, represent steadfastness, high morals and virtues. "Mu-Lan" (magnolia) literally translates to "wood orchid," so perhaps there is a connection.
Here's a note about the magnolia tree itself which shows just how hardy these plants are:
When I lived in California and then in the Southern U.S. they were very common, but I heard they couldn't live in the north, so I was a little disappointed and didn't expect to see them when we moved to New England. However, there are a number of varieties that can live in the north (temperatures in winter to -15, even lower with wind chill!) and these bloom very early. I've seen "White Star" magnolias blooming in the midst of snow-a very pretty sight. Northern magnolias aren't as large as the warm-weather ones, but the flowers come in white, pink, and white and purple. And they have the same strong fragrance as the others too!
Thanks to Dennis Lee and Joan Barger for their contributions.