Chinese Symbolism

Zhong Kui the Demon Queller with his lucky bat (c) A Reich 2023
Chinese art is full of auspicious images, symbolism and allusions.
The internet is now a good source of much information, for example:

Much of the symbolism relies on puns and homophones: an object denotes the quality or wish that it sounds like eg vase 瓶 ping for peace平 ping.  Other symbols relate to the philosophy and religions of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, such as the purity of the lotus rising unsullied from the mud of the pond.

To help with over three thousand years of legends and imagery, here are some of the books that I have found useful.  Although these books overlap in a lot of their content, each may have a nugget of information not found elsewhere: I consult all of them if I am researching a subject for teaching or an article.

  1. Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives: an alphabetical compendium of antique legends and beliefs, as reflected in the manners and customs of the Chinese by CAS Williams.

First published in 1941, and so somewhat old-fashioned in flavour, entries are alphabetical by English term – from Agriculture to Yin and Yang, plus an index, and line-drawing illustrations for some entries.  Romanisation is in Wade-Giles (an older form predating the current pinyin).  Traditional Chinese characters are given for the title terms and also within the text.  Includes topics such as Amusements, Charms and Secret Societies.

  1. Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought by Wolfram Eberhard.

This was originally published in 1983 (in German) with black-and-white illustrations for many entries.  Entries are alphabetical by English term from Amber to Zodiac, with Chinese characters and pinyin.  No index, but has cross-referencing within the text.  (There are various covers on different editions).

  1. Symbols and Rebuses in Chinese art: figures, bugs, beasts, and flowers by Fang Jing Pei, published 2004.

Alphabetical by English term from Alarum Staff to Zodiac, plus an index and coloured photos of objects for many entries.  Entries give the pinyin for each term, but no characters though there is an indexed list of Chinese rebuses. For example, under magpie is the phrase xi zan mei shao 喜在眉梢 happiness to the tips of one’s eyebrows!  The Magpie entry explains that magpie 喜鹊xi que is the happiness bird, and plum blossom, mei, sounds like eyebrow.

  1. Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art by Terese Tse Bartholomew, 2006.

Entries are grouped by symbolism eg Motifs for Blessings, Motifs for Peace, Annual festivals.  Every entry has a colour photo or drawing of an illustrative object.  Many symbols appear in several places, so the index often has several entries for each item from Abundance to Zither.  There is also a pinyin Subject index, a pinyin Auspicious Phrase index, and a Chinese character index arranged by stroke count.  Entries include characters for items and for associated phrases.

  1. Chinese Art Guide Motifs Visual by Patricia Bjaaland Welch, 2008.

This volume is grouped into 3 parts – Symbols from Nature, Mortals and Religious Beings, Inanimate Objects – each divided into Chapters eg Flowers and Plants, Female Figures, Colours.  Entries include characters for the terms used and related phrases with pinyin.  The comprehensive index with both English and pinyin runs from Abundance to Zuozhua, and there are many colour photos.  This excellent book is useful for identifying figures such as “muscular male with a bat” or “old man in traditional robes” – Zhong Kui the Demon Queller and Confucius!

  1. How to Read Chinese Paintings by Maxwell K. Hearn, 2008.

This book is not a systematic catalogue of symbols, but is certainly of interest to painters, being an analysis of thirty-six works paintings in the Metropolitan Museum collection from the fabulous Dragon Steed called Night-Shining White to Less is More, illustrated by a landscape album by Gong Xian.  The analyses help us du hua, “to read a painting”, and may include painting technique , history and symbolism.  They also compare works, such as paintings of the Sixteen Luohans: both paper handscrolls but very different in style, colourful grotesques by Wu Bin contrasted with Shitao’s masterful inkwork.  Luohans are disciples of Buddha who have attained enlightenment but stay on earth to help others (Reference 5).

  1. How to Read Chinese Ceramics by Denise Patry Leidy, 2015.

Motifs used in paintings also appear on ceramics.  Forty-one entries with large colour photographs explain the decorations on each piece.  There is no index or characters; some pinyin terms are used in the text eg lingzhi fungus.

The internet is now a good source of much information, but I still value the books for the depth and breadth of their research.

中国艺术中芭蕉的图像学·叶展叶舒 / 劳悟达著

Leaves Unfurl – the iconography of the banana plant in Chinese Art by Uta Lauer.  Video of the author speaking at a conference.  The  introduction is in French  but the author speaks in English (from minute 4.20).  She tells the story (minute 35.00) of Huaisu practicing calligraphy on a banana leaf, with a message for us!  Another painting of this by Li Keran.  Banana and Basho haiku.