(left) Bat-form architectural carving on the side of the main door of the Sam Ku Temple in Macao. (center)  Five bats encircling the Earth god in the Yeung Hau Temple in Hong Kong. (right) Bat decorating a roadside Earth god shrine outside the Loi Wo Temple in Macao.

NEW YORK - During a visit to Macao a few years ago, an American friend was surprised that the Macanese celebrated Halloween. Not seeing anything related to Halloween about, I asked why he had said that. He pointed to an Earth god shrine sitting by the side of the road. I was confused for a moment, then realized that because the shrine was decorated with bats, he had assumed it was a discarded Halloween decoration. To the Chinese, the bat is actually considered a lucky creature because its name in Chinese, fu, is a homophone for the word ‘blessings’ or ‘good fortune.’

(left) Detail from an Imperial robe to be offered in March 2013 in Sotheby’s New York Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Sale. (right) Bats in a traditional Chinese brocade.

Bats as an auspicious decorative motif in Chinese art reached the height of popularity during the Qing dynasty, where bats were depicted on porcelains, carved in jade, appeared in architectural elements and even embroidered on imperial robes.  

In the sale held on 9 October 2012 in Hong Kong, lot 3024, An Exquisite Pair of Yellow Ground Famille–Rose Double-Gourd Vases sold for HKD 107,060,000 against a high estimate of HKD 60,000,000. Each vase was decorated with five bats surrounding a shou medallion. The motif of five bats represents the five blessings, which to the Chinese are longevity, wealth, health, love of virtue and living to your allotted life span. The shou medallion represents longevity.

An Exquisite Pair of Yellow Ground Famille–Rose Double-Gourd Vases, Qianlong Mark and Period.

In the same sale, A Fine and Rare Robin’s Egg Ground Gilt-Decorated Archaistic Vase, also featured bats in its decoration, and sold for HKD 35,380,000 more than doubling its high estimate of HKD 16,000,000. Both these lots had Qianlong marks and dated to the period.

A Fine and Rare Robin’s Egg Ground Gilt-Decorated Archaistic Vase, Qianlong Mark and Period.

Because bats are nocturnal, can fly and resemble rodents, in some cultures, they are associated with evil and the supernatural, hence their prominence during Halloween. In Chinese art, bats do not have blood dripping fangs, but rather look cute and hold ribbon-tied auspicious objects in their mouths like those on the Yongzheng mark and period Yellow Ground Bowl sold on 11 September in our New York rooms, lot 32, which made USD 92,500 exceeding its high estimate of USD 70,000.

(top) A Yellow-Ground ‘Bats’ Bowl, Yongzheng Mark and Period (bottom) A Famille-Rose ‘Hundred Bats’ Vase, Guangxu Mark and Period, sold for USD 35,000 against an estimate of USD 8,000-12,000 on 11th September 2012 in Sotheby’s New York.

Instead of being depicted against a full moon with a haunted house on a hill in the background, Chinese bats appear to dance amid multi-colored clouds such as depicted on lot 392, A Famille-Rose Hundred Bats Vase, Guangxu Mark and Period, from the same sale, which sold for USD 35,000 quadrupling its low estimate of USD 8,000. Such motifs represent  ‘Blessings descend from Heaven’ and are highly auspicious, and depending on the objects the bats carry in their mouths, convey additional good wishes. For example, a bat carrying a peach conveys the wish of blessings and longevity, since peaches represent long life.  A bat with a double gourd represents good fortune, longevity and high official position, while a multitude of red bats signify a wave of good fortune washing over you.

(left) Bats decorating the gable of the Loyang Tua Pek Kong Temple in Singapore. (right) Five bats decorating the roof ridge of the Tang Gah Temple in Singapore.

Although bats are common in traditional Chinese art, and can be found decorating everything from humble roadside shrines to the Summer Palace of the emperors in Beijing, they are sadly, disappearing from the wild. Bats play an important role in pollination, seed-dispersal and insect control, but loss of habitat, disease, trapping and wind turbines pose serious threats. There are more than 1,200 species of bats, two-thirds of which hunt insects. A single little brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in a single hour. With the increase in mosquito borne diseases, bats are needed more than ever. Conservation efforts are underway in many countries, but bats tend to reproduce slowly with females having only one pup at a time.  

The next time you see a bat, consider yourself lucky and welcome it as a harbinger of good fortune, and feel joy for those heroines in Halloween television specials who find themselves ‘enveloped in good fortune’ when descended upon by a colony of bats.