C hinese art – be it paintings, ceramics or extraordinary objects such as carved jades– are highly regarded for their rich and varied use of motifs. These motifs, which are often of animals and nature, are almost always auspicious. As the Chinese language possesses a limited set of phonetics, many characters are homophonous syllables and as unveiled below, oftentimes used to form puns for various auspicious blessings. By wearing these symbols or having them in one’s home, it is believed the blessings will come true.
The many animals and creatures that appear in Chinese culture are divided into the three categories of mythical, wild, and domestic. While domestic animals represent conscious cooperation owing to its association with having positive interrelationships with humans, wild animals are seen as untamed nature akin to man’s untamed desires. Mythical beasts, on the other hand, are commonly regarded as most powerful of creatures because they exist in the realm of the imagination, a space of unlimited magical potential.
Ahead of The Victor Shaw Collection of Chinese Jades: Online Part 1, we dive into the symbolism, myth, and beliefs of eight animals commonly found in Chinese art.
The dragon is an ancient symbol of fertility in Chinese culture, and one of the Four Holy Beasts (四霊) who are mythological creatures that guard the world – Azure Dragon of the east, Vermillion Bird of the south, White Tiger of the west, Black Tortoise of the north. It also appears as the fifth animal in the Chinese Zodiac, representing strength, health, good luck and yang. It is the only mythological creature among the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac.
The tiger is one of the oldest protectors in Chinese culture. Regarded as king among beasts, because of its association with the Taoist deity Heavenly Master Zhang (張天師), the tiger is believed to be most powerful at warding off evil.
As seen in the present lot, “A reticulated celadon and russet jade ‘dragon and tiger’ boulder” from the Ming dynasty, the tiger teams up with the dragon to represent yin and yang, the dual forces that, in Taoist philosophy, make up the universe.
The emperor of all birds, and one of the the Four Holy Beasts (四霊), the phoenix is a benevolent bird and symbolises prosperity, peace and great blessings. It is also associated with noble rank. According to ancient Chinese tales, the appearance of the phoenix announces the arrival of a great man, an able ruler, because the phoenix appeared when Confucius was born. The tail of the phoenix is said to have five colours, each named after one of the five cardinal virtues: benevolence (仁), righteousness (義), propriety (禮), wisdom (智), and fidelity (信).
In Chinese culture, the bat symbolises blessings. The word “bat” (蝠) shares a similar sound as the words for “blessings” (福) and “riches” (富), making the image of the bat one of the most popular rebuses used in Chinese symbolism. The bat is often depicted upside down in Chinese art, owing to the word for “upside down” (倒) being a pun on the word “arrived” (到), therefore an upside down bat means “blessings have arrived”.
The deer is a pun for “emolument” or “salary” (禄), and symbolises Luxing (禄星), the God of Rank and Emolument. Its name is also a homophonic pun with “road” (路) and “six” (六). It is also a symbol of longevity, and as the only animal with the ability to search out the fungus of immortality (靈芝), quite often the deer is depicted with the fungus in its mouth. In Taoist mythology, the deer is an animal who accompanies Shoulao, the God of Longevity, and Magu, the Goddess of Longevity.
In the case of the present lot “A white and russet jade ‘Shoulao, deer and bat’ group”, the God of Longevity is accompanied by a deer and bats, which together come to mean: Fu, Lu, Shou, the three Star Gods (福禄壽三星).
A most beloved animal in Chinese culture, the crane is a symbol of longevity and nobility, regarded as the prince of all feathered creatures. It is often portrayed together with pine (松), a tree also symbolising longevity due to it being an evergreen. The crane and pine together is a common motif used in birthday blessings as together they come to mean: May you stay young forever.
The seventh animal in the Chinese Zodiac, the horse is a powerful animal that symbolises power, strength and peace, the latter of which is because in ancient China, horses were used to bring peaceful tidings. For this reason, the phrase “the strength of dragons and horses” (龍馬精神) is a popular Chinese New Year wish seen in many homes.
The tenth animal of the Chinese Zodiac, the rooster is an ancient symbol for yang, representing the sun because it was believed that the rooster’s crowing in the mornings, alongside the rising of the sun, chased away evil and darkness. In Chinese mythology, the rooster is also thought to be able to devour the Five Noxious Creatures (五毒): snakes, centipedes, toads, spiders, and scorpions. The rooster possesses five virtues: civil culture because it wears a crown; its forceful spurs give it martial qualities; courage because it confronts its enemies; benevolence because when it communicates with others whenever it finds food; and trustworthiness because it tells the correct time.