La Jolla Ikebana Master onstage at San Diego County Fair


Twenty years ago, shortly after she first came to this country, Jackie Zhang fell in love. Twice. First with Ronald Betts, the La Jolla-based chemist who became her husband, and then with Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging that she says changed her life.

In Beijing, for over a decade, she taught political science and economics at a top university; restricted in how and what she could teach, she hoped to come to America, finish her Ph.D., and become a bridge between East and West. Having gone through the difficult times of the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square, she was ready for a change.

“They call our generation ‘the best generation’ in China, because we experienced the worst times and didn’t collapse,” she said. “We stood up, we survived, and we learned how to be good human beings. I have a scar in my heart that can never be healed, but in America, with Ikebana, I found serenity.”

She met her husband at a party in San Diego. “Ronald was from Iowa, where they only saw Chinese people in movies, but he was very interested in Chinese culture,” she said. “He had gone to China twice, and he dreamed that maybe someday he’d find a Chinese lady.”

Around the same time, a Chinese friend took her to see a one-woman Ikebana show in Mission Valley. The woman was a Japanese grandmaster, and Zhang immediately asked to become her student. Although she hadn’t heard the word “Ikebana” before, the show brought back memories: as a young teenager in Beijing, Zhang had taken lessons in the art from a Japanese neighbor, a veterinarian to whom she had brought her ailing cat.

“It was winter, but he had a beautiful flower arrangement in his window,” she recalled. “It was made out of vegetables, cabbages mostly, and I’d never seen anything like it. So simple and elegant, two or three branches full of energy — the feeling of spring coming. When he saw how interested I was, he said he’d show me how to do it, but he used the Chinese word, so I never knew it as ‘Ikebana.’ About once a month, when he had time, he’d give me lessons. Then the Cultural Revolution came, and he disappeared. All foreigners were forced to leave; they were said to be spies.”

In San Diego, the more Zhang learned about Ikebana, the more devoted she became. “The power of art and nature, the appreciation of beauty — there’s so much peacefulness in that,” she said. Part of the Ohara School, which blends traditional and modern styles, she has now been teaching Ikebana for more than 15 years.

Although she says things are better than ever in China these days, Zhang loves her life here. In 2001, she was designated a Master Ikebana teacher; in 2014, several years after forming the Sakura Ikebana Group in La Jolla, she was honored as a top-rank master by Ohara School headquarters in Tokyo.

That same year, she was invited to start Ikebana Day at the San Diego County Fair, bringing students along for displays and demonstrations. Ikebana Day is now a popular annual event, and on June 12, she gave a presentation on the Flower & Garden Show Stage, completing eight different types of arrangements in 90 minutes. For all who were watching, it was an impressive display by a modern master of the centuries-old Ikebana ideals of space, form and balance.

Learn Ikebana design: Jackie Zhang teaches Saturday Ikebana classes at the library, 7555 Draper Ave., in series of three. Summer classes are June 25, July 2 and 9, and Aug. 6, 13 and 20, with pre-registration required. (858) 337-5671.