Sculpted Allegories: Jade Animals and Their Enduring Symbolism

Sculpted Allegories: Jade Animals and Their Enduring Symbolism

Delving into some of the unique and recurring jade animals throughout history, and the distinct and unique meanings they each hold.
Delving into some of the unique and recurring jade animals throughout history, and the distinct and unique meanings they each hold.

I f you sift through the arsenal of China's historical treasures, there is a clear and fascinating constant – animals intricately carved in jade. With jade animals prominent from the Neolithic era to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) through to the present day, the evolution of each carved animal is a testament to its poignant symbolism. What began as a simple reflection of animal characteristics and habits has evolved into an auspicious tale denoting the prosperity and blessings that each animal embodies.

Each historical era showcased different approaches to jade animal craftsmanship. In the Shang (16th century-c.1046 BC) and Zhou dynasties (c.1046-221 BC), realism prevailed as jade animals took form in squared cylindrical jade, capturing the essence of each creature in its characteristic posture. The Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties witnessed a flourishing jade carving industry, marked by a surge in the diversity of animal carvings – from toads and ducks to lions and elephants. Ming animal jades, characterised by rugged aesthetics, featured broader, more generalised demarcations, showcasing a departure from intricate detailing.

Regardless from which dynasty they came from, jade animals form a narrative of ancient craftsmanship, a tale of beasts etched in stone carrying with them the hopes and fortunes of bygone eras. Ahead of The Victor Shaw Collection of Chinese Jades: Online Part 4, we delve into some of the unique and recurring jade animals throughout history, and the distinct and unique meanings they each hold.


In Chinese culture, the horse holds important symbolic significance, representing power, peace, and nobility. They were often thought to be related to dragons. With roots tracing back to the Tang dynasty, jade horse carvings echo the enduring cultural legacy of these symbols, embodying positive connotations including being the bearer of good fortune. This is part of the reason why, in ancient China, horses or horse emblems were seen as blessings or signifying peace. The horse also served as a symbol for the Mongols during the Yuan dynasty, as their culture was strongly centred around this majestic creature.


The ram (yang 羊), is one of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac. Yang symbolises the male principle yang in Yin Yang and represents the ‘sun’ (yang 陽) due to its identical pronunciation. The ram kneels when nursing, a gesture revered by Confucians as an embodiment of filial piety, signifying respect towards the mother. The depiction of three rams, known as san yang (三羊) speaks to the idiom san yang kai tai (三陽開泰), that refers to auspicious new beginnings, but can also mean three rams bring fortune, due to the multiple meanings of the pronunciation yang. This phrase is often expressed during Chinese New Year celebrations.


The jade dragon carries profound cultural meaning in Chinese history, embodying virtues like benevolence, prosperity and the renewal of life. The only mythological Chinese Zodiac, the dragon is seen as strong, prosperous and wise, while desecrating dragon symbols is a taboo act in Asian cultures. Jade dragons are cherished gifts for life milestones, encapsulating the dragon's symbolism of power, strength, and good luck, and jade's representation of wisdom, beauty, and perfection.


From cranes and eagles to parrots and roosters, birds carry huge significance in Chinese culture, which has also been reflected across jade carvings and pendants throughout history. Birds of prey like owls and eagles have been seen in tombs to reflect rebirth, renewal and protection. The noble crane was regarded by Daoists as a divine bird and symbolises longevity, while parrots, especially in a pair, can represent love and commitment.


The majestic lion, an enduring symbol of authority, protection, and strength, holds a prominent place in Chinese cultural symbolism. These powerful creatures are viewed as guardians, often flanking the entrances of homes and buildings. During Chinese New Year festivities, the lion dance is said to expel malevolent forces as it ushers in new, auspicious energy. As figures of status and strength, a lion’s representations in jade hold a dual promise of protection and prosperity.

Chinese Works of Art

About the Author

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

arrow Created with Sketch. Back To Top