F or thousands of years stretching back to the days of prehistoric cave paintings, our art has taken as subject matter flora and fauna of all kinds. The artist’s fascination with animals has expressed itself in stories and dreams — as deities and demons, fables and fantasies, loyal companions and wild enemies. These projections shape the way we understand our own natures and dwell in the imagination as a symbol for our origins and the evolution from nature to culture.
“Art is continually haunted by the animal.”
In his essay “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger asserts that the animal served as the first subject matter for human paintings, parietal art which adorned cave walls and engraved rock. He surmised that animal must also be the first metaphor, because within the relationship was the discovery of both what was like and unlike human: “This – maybe the first existential dualism – was reflected in the treatment of animals. They were subjected and worshipped, bred and sacrificed.”
The impulse to assign symbolism to animals is linked to our awareness of what it means to be human, and this understanding connects art and cultures throughout history. Depictions of animals were projections of allegories, aesthetic muses or symbols of creation – reinforcing widely-held mythology or beliefs. “What we are trying to define, because the experience is almost lost, is the universal use of animal-signs for charting the experience of the world,” Berger wrote. “Animals were seen in eight out of twelve signs of the zodiac. Among the Greeks, the sign of each of the twelve hours of the day was an animal… The Hindus envisaged the earth being carried on the back of an elephant and the elephant on a tortoise.”
Animals in Chinese art have long been a way of conveying philosophical and sometimes political meaning in a sophisticated visual language of cultural associations and wordplay. Depictions of animals cannot be construed as superficial or merely decorative. Real and mythical animals had spiritual meanings bound to individual motifs, and they were assigned specific places within in the universe in accord with Chinese cosmology.
“The Chinese define animals in nature in a very specific way, through concepts like yin-yang cosmology,” Hou-Mei Sung, curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum and author of Decoded Messages: The Symbolic Language of Chinese Animal Painting, said in a 2009 interview with Citybeat Cincinnati. “A tiger is not just a wild beast or animal, but almost a living symbol.”
Images of the tiger, for example, can be interpreted as emblems of protection, according to Terese Tse Bartholomew in The Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, and has been enshrined in Taoist thought together with the dragon. “It teams with the dragon to represent the yin and yang guardians, protecting palaces as well as tombs.” In agricultural times flourishing at the mercy of the elements, the pairing of dragon and tiger conjures up powerful forces of nature, at times emerging as agents of rain or wind, heat or cold – and in other respects symbols of seasonal cycles and cardinal directions.
Much has been written parsing the meanings of animal symbolism. Moving beyond the exercise of accounting a one-to-one equation of referential values, it behooves us to return to the question posed by Berger, “Why Look at Animals?” These images of animals enable us to understand the relationships of humans and nature, with wild beasts as intermediaries. In his preface to the collection of essays, The Zoomorphic Imagination in Chinese Art and Culture, Eugene Y. Wang writes that, "What makes the Chinese use of animal images distinct is not so much what they stand for as how they stand in relation to each other... The web of relationships to which they are integrated is key to Chinese animal 'symbolism.'"
"Birds beat their wings in the air in order to ﬂy. Wild beasts stomp on solid ground in order to run. Serpents and dragons live in the water. Tigers and leopards live in the mountains. This is the nature of heaven and Earth… Each accords with where it lives in order to protect against the cold and the heat. All things attain what is suitable to them; things accord with their niches. From this viewpoint, the myriad things deﬁnitely accord with what is natural to them, so why should sages interfere with this?"
Wang references a philosophical text from 139 BC, but goes on to dispute the notion of an exaltation of nature suggested by most interpretations of such texts. Instead, the value of looking at animals, Wang contends, is that "Chinese notions of nature focus largely on patterns of change and evolving processes.. It is the pattern of change that is the core of the Chinese notions of nature."