Many of these elements that are used in Chinese art do not fall into one simple category. This assortment of art motifs and symbols covers all sorts of traditions and customs from China's rich historical heritage. For other lists on animals, birds, nature, flowers, fruit click on list above. Here is a list of the assorted items in this section:
Amulets have since ancient days in China been used to bring luck. The spell on a typical amulet is written in a very old ‘Spirit script’ (pre-Han dynasty) to ward off evil. The Spirit script could only be read by the spirits and proved a lucrative sideline for the Daoist priests who wrote it. It would often have the baguo trigrams inscribed on it.
The ancestral tablet is an essential part of Ancestor Veneration, a very ancient and still strong Chinese tradition. The paternal line with date of birth are inscribed on the tablet roughly 12 inches [30 cms] by 3 inches [8 cms] which is placed on a small ancestral table with candles, incense sticks, pictures and offerings within the home, usually on the north wall. The tablet is often made of lacquered wood; on it the wife's name is inscribed alongside her husband.
This tradition had a powerful influence on the preference for boys, as a woman could only be memorialized as a wife on the family's tablet and only a man could lead the acts of ritual veneration. The more distant relatives are noted on a separate paper scroll. The tradition is that chicken blood would give sustenance to the spirits locked in the tablet. The number of ancestral tablets on display indicate the longevity and stability of the ancestral line.
An ax (fu 斧) wrapped in a red cloth is the traditional gift for a bride. It symbolizes the end of virginity but also fu is a homophone for happiness 福. As the shaft of an ax is made of wood but an ax is needed to cut down a tree it is regarded as the 'go-between' between a person and collecting timber and as such represents the marriage match-maker. An ax (axe) is one of the symbols of the Emperor's power and also the symbol of some Buddhist deities.
Bell is one of the Chinese characters that is easy to remember as ‘zhong’ sounds rather like a bell. The modern form of the character is made up of the metal radical combined with 中 zhōng as the phonetic for ‘middle’. Appropriately it also means ‘clock’ from the sounding of bells to mark the passage of time.
A stone chime 磬 qìng is an ancient musical instrument rather like a bell, it was an ‘L’ shaped stone suspended by a string and struck with a stick. Originally some of the stones were of made of jade. The chime is important in symbolism because 卿 qīng means ‘high ranking official’ and 庆 qìng ‘celebrate’. Sometimes two qings are shown placed together to form a rectangle to represent ‘doubling’ the wish for an official appointment.
Huge bells date back thousands of years in China. The first Qin Emperor is said to have melted his defeated armies bronze weapons down to make bells. They were played as musical instruments from early days, carefully tuned to a continuous octave. The large bells are static and are sounded by hitting with a wooden staff. In later dynasties they became associated with religious temples and a bell is sounded at a Buddhist temple at midnight. Wind bells were fixed to roofs to make a melodic sound in the breeze. Hand bells are also used in China and a monk would often rattle small bells to beg for alms. In a painting a bell may wish luck as 中 zhòng (fourth tone) means ‘succeed or win’.
China has a long history of producing books. Early books were made from thin strips of bamboo, wrapped up into a scroll-form. Because the Chinese script has so many characters it was a long and painstaking process to hand carve wooden blocks so the text could be printed. For this reason books needed a long and large circulation to be economically viable; this may be why such emphasis was put on the Five Classics of literature. Budding scholars had to learn key passages by heart in order to pass the Imperial examinations. Imperial projects assembled ‘all’ knowledge into huge thousand volume encyclopedias. When European travelers such as Marco Polo reached China they were amazed by the abundance and low price of books.
The first Qin Emperor is famous for the ‘burning of the books’ which was used to impose his new unified script over the whole of China. All books written in other scripts or conflicting histories or those opposing the Legalist philosophy were ordered to be burnt. Paradoxically this resulted in many books being preserved as their owners hid them away to be uncovered much later. Ancient classics were considered powerful talismans against evil, and they were treated with respect - the book's paper was not re-used but ritually burnt when the books were no longer usable.
In a painting books have the direct meaning of scholarship. A baby boy when he reached 100 days old would be given a tray of different objects, if he grasped a book then he was sure to become a scholar.
The character for bow is a pictograph of the compound bow that was used in China from ancient times. There is a Chinese version of the legend of Odysseus' bow that only the chosen one has the strength to torsion it. The Divine Archer Hou Yi 后羿 associated with early legends was the master archer; he shot down nine of the original ten suns (or ravens) so that the Earth would not be too hot. His wife Chang 'e is goddess of the Moon.
The character for a small box sounds the same as 和 hé which can mean ‘peace; harmony’ and so a box portrayed in a picture symbolizes peaceful wishes. This wish is amplified by the presence of lotus leaves and a scepter. Hé-hé èr xiān 和合二仙 - the Heavenly twins of ‘Harmony and Union’ are shown as two boys one carrying a box (or sometimes a bowl) and the other a lotus.
A bridge is a physical and symbolical link between two pieces of land. In a painting it often symbolizes a journey or the transition between life and death.
On the River Wei near the ancient capital of Chang'an, Shaanxi is the ‘Blue Bridge’ where people took leave of their loved ones when embarking on a long journey. Many romantic stories are told of people meeting on or by bridges.
The broom is used for sweeping up, and it has come to be associated with various superstitions, a broom should not be placed in the room of someone very ill (sweeping away life), or in a gaming room (sweeping away luck). It can also symbolize wisdom and insight as it sweeps away ignorance and worry. A broom is used to sweep the house ritually clean just before the New Year Festival in readiness for a fresh start to the new year.
The broom is associated with the Daoist Shide 拾得 the eccentric associate of the legendary Han Shan 寒山 a well known poet. Shide is represented as a smiling figure holding a broom.
扫晴娘 Sǎo qíng niáng is the goddess of fair weather and is shown using a broom to sweep away the clouds.
One ancient view of the world in China was that the earth was a chariot and the heavens a canopy above it. Use of cloth canopies as a sunshade goes back to the Han dynasty. The Queen Mother of the West is often shown under a canopy but it is best known as one of the eight Buddhist symbols and represents the lung of the Buddha.
Ancient Chinese coins were round with a square central hole. These shapes may symbolize earth (square) and heaven (round). Coins were often used as lucky charms but they had a symbolic meaning too. For a complete history of coins in China please see our Chinese money section.
The central hole is called an eye 眼 yǎn. A particularly symbolic way to wish good fortune is to combine bats and coins (钱 qián). The bat symbolizes good fortune 褔 fú and the coins symbolize ‘before your very eyes’ 福在眼前 fú zài yǎn qián. In some places children wore a necklace of coins, one extra coin was added on each birthday. The homophone 迁 qiān means ‘promote; change’ so money can symbolize a wish for advancement rather than wealth. A string of nine coins symbolizes continual happiness (as 九 jiǔ ‘nine’ sounds the same as 久 jiǔ ‘long time’).
Paper money has been in use for a thousand years, and specially printed money is ritually burned at festivals and funerals to send money to the spirits.
A money tree probably reflects the way that multiple bronze coins were cast in a mold at the same time. A popular Chinese Opera is called ‘Shaking the money tree’.
Silver ingots in the shape of a shoe or boat represent a much larger amount of money. They were called 'sychees' 细丝 xì sī and could weight up to 100 ounces. They were also called 元宝 yuán bǎo and because 元 yuán means ‘first’ and so a picture of three silver shoes represent wish to come first in all three levels of Imperial Examinations.
The endless knot is a common decoration in China. It was originally a Buddhist emblem from India and also present in Hinduism. It is used in embroidery, wooden lattice window designs and all sorts of other places. The most common form has nine crossings (nine being a strong yang number) and its endless cycle suggests immortality and the infinite wisdom of Buddha.
Originally the fan was not the decorated folded fan you associate with China today, they were original unfolded. The old ones came in all shapes and sizes made from feathers, silk, paper and palm leaves. The folded fan probably came from Korea in the 10th century, they are more convenient as they can be carried in the sleeve or in a case fastened to the belt. Folding fans may have ivory, horn or sandalwood frames with decoration often in mother of pearl, lacquer or tortoiseshell.
Over time it became traditional for men's fans to have far fewer ribs than women's - which could have over 30 ribs. Decency dictated that only women would only be depicted on women’s fans. In elite circles fans were used with its own particular etiquette, and gestures had specific meanings ➚. This is still tapped into when a fan is used in traditional opera.
A fan is the symbol of Zhongli Quan, one of the Eight Immortals. A fan may symbolize benevolence and good wishes as 善 shàn ‘good, virtuous’ sounds the same. The decoration of the silk or paper surface of a fan reached high artistic perfection. Typically one side would show a landscape and the other a piece of fine calligraphy.
Filial piety - the selfless service of parents is chief among the Confucian canon of virtues. Many examples of dedication to please parents have come down through the centuries. A well known classic is the ‘24 examples of Filial piety ➚’. It contains examples of extreme dedication such as: sons going without food to ensure parents do not go without; Zhou Yanzi taking to a life disguised among a herd of deer so he could collect doe's milk to cure his father's illness and the tale of Huang Xiang who warmed his father's bed each night.
The Chinese went into a long period of mourning on a parent's death lasting some years. Many pictures and ceramic designs portray examples of filial piety such as oranges (to celebrate the tale of Lu ji ) and crows.
The transverse held flute is said to have come from Tibet two thousand years ago, it is considered a melancholic instrument. Traditionally it is a tube with eight holes, one to blow through and one with the reed leaving six to modulate the sound.
The vertically held flute 箫 xiāo has an older heritage and this is usually played by women. Xiāo shī 箫师 who lived in the Tang dynasty was considered the master of flute playing. Both types of flute have the bamboo radical as part of the character emphasizing their manufacture from bamboo tubes.
Han Xiangzi 韩湘子 (and sometimes Lan Caihe) one of the Eight Immortals is usually shown holding a flute.
As in most other countries a belief in ghosts was widespread in China. Gui denotes an malevolent creature, while friendly ghosts, particularly family ghosts, are called 神 shén. ‘Hungry ghosts’ may be aggrieved because they have been separated from their families. Ghosts cast no shadow and appear as dark clouds, but they are short-sighted. They lurk in dark corners. The seventh month of the Chinese calendar year is the ‘ghost’ month with a festival to mark its start and the Hungry Ghost festival at its middle. 洋鬼子 yáng guǐ zi was a derogative term for Western foreigners.
Gongs are commonly made of brass and cast it into the familiar low conical shape. They come in a variety of sizes up to two feet wide and are suspended by string and hit with a wooden mallet. It is generally sounded to announce something, traditionally this might be a solar eclipse (to scare away the monster eating the sun) or the arrival of a senior official. The Yùn luó 韵锣 has ten small gongs suspended in a frame and is often seen in traditional musical ensembles and operas.
The number Five is heavily used in Chinese symbolism, usually indicating luck. The five gods of good luck are represented as officials dressed in red. The good fortune is also stressed by presence of bats (also called fú 蝠). Sometimes the symbolism works the other way where five bats represent the five gods.
The halberd is a type of spear that is sometimes used symbolically in paintings. This is because ji can also mean 机 jī ‘opportunity’ and 级 jí ‘grade; rank’ and so expresses the wish for luck particularly in examinations.
Heaven (sky; day) is the pair to Earth, it represents yang: male in contrast to earth yin: female. The Emperor as the ‘Son of Heaven’ acted as the sole conduit between Earth and Heaven. The stars in the sky are laid out, according to Chinese tradition, as an Imperial court with the Emperor at the Pole star. Good fortune is considered to fall down from the heavens.
The Christian missionaries translated their god as 天主 tiān zhǔ while the Supreme Chinese god is Shangdi 上帝. ‘All below heaven’ 天下 tiān xià was a term used for the whole civilized world and for a long time a term for the country of China.
The Chinese hell is a generally a less fearsome place than the Christian one. People are punished after death for their misdemeanors, but not for eternity so it is more like the Christian purgatory. Hell can be transliterated as ‘earth prison’ and is divided into ten sections with the first one being the place of initial judgment. Each section is then subdivided according to the particular sins to be punished and ruled by specific demons. The belief in an after-life is not strong in China (see ghosts) and ‘hell’ probably came into China with Buddhism. It is the Buddhist tradition that has produced vivid portrayals of the horrors of hell.
Many of the Chinese Immortals are based on historical figures who due to their great virtue were given immortality; there are hundreds of them; often associated with a particular place. Some say they live in the Isles of the Blessed or with the Queen Mother of the West in the Kunlun mountains. Even living people may be termed 仙 xiān if they have lived a virtuous life or shown great talent.
The Eight Immortals are the most widely shown group, almost always shown together. Sometimes they are pictured greeting the god of longevity flying past on a crane. They are associated with the Daoist tradition. Quite often just the eight distinctive insignia for each immortal is shown: gourd; fan; flower basket; bamboo tube; lotus; sword; flute and ruyi.
The Imperial insignia were displayed on robes and decorations at the Imperial palace. Some sources say there were nine insignia, but most have twelve (one for each lunar month). They date back at least four thousand years and are mentioned in the Classic text the 书经 shū jīng ‘Book of Documents’. Only the Emperor could wear the full set of twelve, lower ranks of nobility could use only a few of them.
They are :
The Chinese have a legend of a paradise set on islands out East in the North China Sea possibly relating to legends about Japan. The blessed lived there for eternity. They are known by various names for this Eastern ‘Avalon ➚’ including 方丈 Fāng zhàng; 蓬莱 Péng lái and 瀛洲 Yíng zhōu.
The Qin Emperor Shihuangdi sent Xu Fu (徐福 Xú Fú) in 219BCE to search for the Islands of the Blessed in the hope that he would bring back an Elixir of Life to give him immortality. He is said to have seen the islands but was held back from getting close by strong easterly winds.
Some say the herb of immortality grows here and that it is a type of water grass with long leaves. Zoysia pungens ➚ 芝 is one candidate plant. The herb is sometimes shown in the mouth of a deer or the beak of a crane emphasizing the symbolism of immortality. It is reputed that only deer are able to find it.
Others say the herb of immortality is actually a bracket fungus, possibly Ganoderma lucidum ➚ (灵芝 líng zhī) which grows widely on decaying trees. Unlike other fungi it remains solid indefinitely which may explain the association with immortality. Some similar species are bright red. Many different types of mushroom are used in traditional medicine.
Laozi, literally ‘old master’ is the legendary founder of Daoism. Please see a dedicated section on Laozi for his biography and more on Daoism. In this section the emphasis is on symbolism because Laozi is a frequent subject for pictures and figurines. He is always portrayed as a bearded old man with a bald head usually riding a water buffalo. He symbolizes longevity just as much as a revered religious figure.
The God of Longevity is a tall old man with a bald, elongated head and white beard. He usually rides a deer and may hold other emblems of longevity including a peach, a crane, mushrooms of immortality and a long knobbly wooden staff. He may be accompanied by a boy. Some say he lives at the South Pole where he tends a garden full of the herb of immortality. The other part of his name 星 xīng means ‘star’ and he is associated with the bright star Canopus in the Argo constellation.
He is one of a trinity of good fortune deities: Fu, Lou and Shou representing Happiness; Prosperity and Longevity.
The eighteen Buddhist ‘arhats’ are called 十八罗汉 shí bā luó hàn in Chinese and hold a similar place in Chinese affection as the Eight Daoist Immortals. Luohan means ‘destroyers of the enemy’, the enemies in Buddhism are the passions. A luohan has dispensed with all the passions; is free from reincarnation and reached nirvana ➚. Although eighteen are distinguished in illustrations; temples often have 500 luohan.
Of the eighteen, sixteen are Indian in origin, only two are Chinese. Every luohan has a standard pose and is associated with particular animals and objects by which they can be identified.
There are many different lute-like instruments in China. The qin 琴 qín short for 古琴 gǔ qín is one of the oldest and most appreciated type of zither. It has a long body, laid on a table with seven strings and is plucked with the fingernails.
Qin can also mean 禁 jìn ‘prohibit, forbid’ and one legend says the name comes from the ability of the instrument to soothe and so ‘prohibit’ passion.
A similarly ancient instrument is the 瑟 sè which generally has more strings. Most of the scholarly élite of China were expected to display some proficiency at music, and particularly on the guqin. It was one of the four accomplishments of scholars together with 象棋 xiàng qí chess; 书 shū literature and 画 huà painting. And so a qin symbolically represents the wish to become a scholar.
The pipa 琵琶 pí pá is a widely seen form of lute similar to a mandolin. It came to China from Iran. It symbolizes good luck. The famous concubine Wang Zhaojun ➚ is often shown holding a large pipa, she was sent by Han Emperor Yuan as a peace trophy to the Xiongnu tribe. She is considered one of the main paragons of beauty.
In ancient times mirrors were circular and made of bronze and they gave an imperfect reflection that soon tarnished. A bronze mirror 铜镜 tóng jìng sounds similar to 同谐 tóng xié ‘together in harmony’. As in Europe the mirror is associated with magical properties 护心镜 hù xīn jìng; it makes spirits visible and so can be used to see the ‘hare in the moon’; it also keeps evil at bay. In Feng Shui the ba gua mirror has a central circular mirror surrounded by the eight trigrams and is used to control the flow of qi, and reflect bad qi away. If people do not recognize themselves in a mirror it is a sign that death is near at hand.
There is a legend that a mirror split in two can be used to monitor a loved one far away, if they are given one part of it, if they are unfaithful it will turn into a magpie and fly away. A mirror is considered lucky and if a man finds one, he will soon find a wife, it is therefore an appropriate gift for an unmarried man.
Some were built to house sacred Buddhist remains, but with the Chinese open attitude to religion they do not generally have a religious connotation when depicted in a picture. They can be octagonal or circular and usually of nine or seven levels (always an odd number). Sometimes they were built to counter poor Feng Shui in a location, and in a picture they serve a similar purpose, balancing the composition and giving a visual measure of distance.
The legend of Pangu as the progenitor of all creation seems to have come late to China, probably from minority people of Southern China, in ancient China there was no divine creator.
On the death of Pangu his body parts became the earth and all living things. Sometimes he is portrayed as hewing the Earth from rock and sometimes with the symbol of yin-yang, this is related to the Daoist doctrine that from the One came the Two (yin and yang) and from these all things.
Rather like the pagoda, the pavilion is a familiar motif in Chinese painting. They are usually of one or two stories and often located by lakes. Many villages had small pavilions to give protection to travelers from the elements, and as such were the scene of many amorous encounters. High ‘flying’ eaves decorate the roofs (see our architecture section for more on this). One popular motif is a round pavilion set high in mountains to represent the Isles of the Blessed.
The decorative emblem ‘ruyi’ (a.k.a. joo-i WG) symbolizes a heart-felt wish as that is what it translates to. The ruyi represents a ritual short sword and sword guard originally made of iron. The gift of a ruyi signifies good wishes for future prosperity. It is often used as a decorative motif in embroidery and wooden window lattices. Its shape is said to mimic the plant/mushroom of longevity/immortality and the lotus. The head of the sword, the sword-guard seen end on, resembles a bat which is another symbol for good fortune. It is also associated with the ceremonial scepter 珽 tǐng and the jade tablet 圭 guī.
The horse saddle is sometimes used to symbolize peace as 安 ān ‘peace’ sounds the same. It was used in the marriage ceremony by being placed in the house so that the bride would step over the saddle symbolizing a wish for peace and harmony in married life.
The Chinese have been writing and painting on scrolls for milleniums. The slow unraveling of a scroll has had a great impact of Chinese art. Instead of seeing a scene all at once, a scroll painting is revealed progressively. This explains some of the finer points of composition of paintings. Writing too, is influenced by the scroll. Traditional writing is top to bottom; right to left as this is much more convenient when reading from a scroll. A poem on a scroll is not seen all at once, like large paintings on scrolls it is revealed little by little.
Originally bamboo strips were used before they were replaced with paper. A scroll has the advantage that it is easy to place a seal on it (made of clay or wax) so that it can be certain that the contents have not been read by intermediaries. Scrolled poems or proverbs are often created as ornamental objects to be hung on walls.
As shoes come in pairs there is an implicit link to a wish for marital harmony. Silver ingots are made in the shape of a shoe (or boat) and so shoes commonly represent wealth. In some areas shoes were exchanged to express wish to live in harmony. It also sounds the same as 协 xié ‘harmony’ to reinforce the message. In Cantonese xié is pronounced ‘hai’ and expresses the wish for a child. A shoe and a bronze mirror together symbolize wish for a long marriage as 同 tòng ‘together’ sounds similar to 铜 tóng ‘copper; bronze’.
The bound feet of women were called lotus feet and as ‘lian’ for lotus sounds the same as 连 lián for ‘continuous’ a picture of women's shoes may represent a wish for ‘a series of children’.
From ancient times fine swords were highly valued. Sword-smiths are known from 4,500 years ago, well before the Iron Age ➚. Symbolically a sword was used by heroes to overcome demons. One of the eight immortals Lü Dongbin) 吕洞宾 is shown carrying a demon-slaying sword. Likewise 钟馗 Zhōng kuí is another hero brandishing a sword to destroy evil demons. Gān Jiàng 干將 and Mò Yé 莫邪 were a married couple of sword-smiths from the Warring States Period. With great risk and heroism a pair of renowned swords were made by them (one male; one female).
The ancient design element of the ‘Taotie’ is commonly seen on the designs of Zhou and Shang dynasty vessels. It is the Beast of Greed and warns against avarice and sensuality. It was also depicted on the 照壁 zhào bì ‘shield wall’ blocking direct access into a house or yamen reminding an official of the temptation of greed. It depicts a monster with two huge eyes and powerful jaws. Sometimes it has antlers and sometimes the head of a tiger. According to legend the monster was banished by Emperor Shun.
The very ancient cooking vessel made of bronze ‘ding’ is often seen outside temples and in museums. Many of them date back at least 4,500 years. They achieved symbolic importance because the holder of the nine tripods ruled China and they came to represent the nine regions of China. Should these tripods be lost then the mandate of heaven was lost too. The three feet represent the three Grand secretaries ruling China under the direction of the Emperor. They are now used as good luck symbols.
The umbrella or parasol is one of the Chinese characters where it is portrayed accurately with the minimum of strokes. The old form has four people sheltering underneath it 傘. Traditionally it was made of bamboo sticks covered with waxed paper. Folding umbrellas have been known in China from two thousand years ago. Wenzhou in Zhejiang is famous for manufacturing umbrellas.
A ceremonial umbrella of red silk was presented to a respected administrator when he left office, it had the names of the donors emblazoned on it in gold. An umbrella is one of the eight sacred Buddhist emblems.
Traditional vases in China tend to be of porcelain, bronze and not glass. They come in many different styles often designed to show off a particular type of flower. As 平 píng ‘peace’ sounds the same, the gift of a vase symbolizes a wish for peace. A rare and precious vase 宝瓶 bǎo píng sounds the same as 保平 bǎo píng ‘ensure peace’. A picture of a vase with particular flowers will add the wish for peace, so a vase containing the representative four flowers for each season 四季 sì jì (plum, lotus, chrysanthemum, pine) gives a wish for peace throughout the whole year 四季平安 sì jì píng ān.
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