Say it with flowers: An expert guide to the symbolism of Chinese ceramic decoration

Peonies, jasmine, chrysanthemums and other flowers are loaded with meaning in Chinese art. With the aid of a selection of exceptional pieces — offered in London on 15 May — Chinese Ceramics specialist Katie Lundie peels back the layers

Chinese porcelain has been decorated with a huge variety of motifs in the years since the first recognisable shapes appeared on painted pottery in the Neolithic period. Since the Song dynasty (960-1279) flowers have been among the most popular decorative themes. 

This was particularly true on 18th-century enamelled porcelains. The choice of designs was based not only on their beauty, but also on what the motifs represented.  ‘Throughout Chinese history, symbolism has been integral to its artwork,’ says Katie Lundie, Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Specialist at Christie’s in London. ‘These links are often very playful.’

The melding of beauty and meaning is exemplified by the elegant floral decorations on the lime-green ground famille rose vase pictured above — a highlight of the Rarity and Refinement: Treasures from a Distinguished East Asian Collection sale on 15 May at Christie’s in London.

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  • Peony and crab apple

Known in China since at least the 9th century BC, and beloved of Chinese artists and poets, the tree peony (牡丹 mudan) was considered ‘the king of flowers’ and associated with the imperial family, who as early as the Tang dynasty (618-907) grew it in the palace gardens.  It is known as the flower of ‘wealth and honour’, and was traditionally a token of love and exchanged as a farewell gift.

The crab apple (海棠花 haitang hua) could be combined with other emblems to create auspicious rebuses. Its second character, 棠 tang, provides a rebus for 堂 tang, meaning hall, and, by extension, ‘the family home’. Crab-apple flowers and peonies are sometimes combined to suggest the phrase 滿堂富貴 mantang fugui: ‘May the whole family achieve wealth and honour’.

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  • Hibiscus and rose

The most celebrated hibiscus in China is known as mufurong 木芙蓉, which provides a rebus for ‘wealth and glory’, and is famous for the fact that it is white when it opens in the morning, but turns pink as the day fades. This change of colour has inspired another name for the flower: the drunken hibiscus (醉酒芙蓉 zuijiu furong).

On some pieces, hibiscus and rose appear together. This suggests the phrase 長春 榮華 changchun ronghua: ‘May you have wealth, glory and a long life’. The Chinese monthly rose (月季 yueji) is famous for the fact that it blooms almost every month of the year. For this reason, the Chinese rose is also known as ‘the eternal spring flower’ (長春花 changchunhua), and is thus a symbol of longevity.

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  • Chrysanthemum and morning glory

The lotus, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum (菊花 juhua) are regarded in China as ‘the four gentlemen of flowers’. Chrysanthemums in particular are associated with longevity and wealth, because the name sounds similar to the word 久 jiu, meaning ‘long enduring’, and infusions made from their petals are believed to have medicinal properties. Chrysanthemums represent autumn and, like peonies, are mentioned in Chinese literature as early as the 9th century BC. 

With its striking blue trumpet-like flowers, morning glory first appeared on Chinese porcelain in the early 15th century. One of its Chinese names, 牽牛花 qianniuhua, literally means ‘lead ox flower’, and refers to the story of a farmer who was cured of illness by eating morning glory seeds, and afterwards led his oxen into the fields to give thanks to the plant that saved his life. The flower is also a symbol of marital bliss.

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  • Jasmine and camellia

The dainty white blossoms of the Arabian jasmine (茉莉花 molihua) were greatly valued for their fragrance and used in the 18th century to decorate and perfume the Emperor’s apartments. The flowers were also used to perfume clothes, and were worn by ladies in their hair.

Many varieties of camellia were grown in China, but it is almost always the red Camellia japonica (山茶 shancha) that is depicted in Chinese art. The red colour of the flowers is associated with both joy and protection. It blooms around the time of Chinese New Year, when it is used to decorate homes in order to secure prosperity in the coming year, as expressed in the phrase 花開富貴 huakai fugui.

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  • Lotus flowers and peaches

The lotus flower is associated with Buddhism and is a symbol of feminine beauty; it is also associated with purity because it rises unsullied from the mud. In Chinese, one word for lotus (荷 he) is a homophone for the word for ‘harmony’ (和). In the vase above, the lotus flowers appear alongside peaches, which represent longevity. 

Peaches also feature in the vase above, together with double gourds, which symbolise fertility.