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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 two rare Qianlong vases — offered in London on 9 May — International Academic Director Rosemary Scott peels back the layers

Chinese porcelain has been decorated with a huge variety of motifs in the years since the first recognizable 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, where the flowers were sometimes accompanied by butterflies. The choice of designs was based not only on their beauty, but also on what the motifs symbolised.

A magnificent pair of famille rose butterfly double-gourd vases. Qianlong six-character seal marks, 9 in (23 cm) high. Estimate on request. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 9 May 2017 at Christie’s in London, King Street

A magnificent pair of famille rose 'butterfly' double-gourd vases. Qianlong six-character seal marks, 9 in (23 cm) high. Estimate on request. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 9 May 2017 at Christie’s in London, King Street

The melding of beauty and meaning is exemplified by the elegant floral decorations on a magnificent and rare pair of Qianlong famille rose  enamelled vases (above) — a highlight of the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art  sale at Christie’s King Street on 9 May. 

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  • Peony and crab apple

A peony on one of the double-gourd vases offered on 9 May

A peony on one of the double-gourd vases offered on 9 May

Crab-apple blossom with butterfly on the upper bulb of one of the double-gourd vases 

Crab-apple blossom with butterfly on the upper bulb of one of the double-gourd vases 

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

A hibiscus flower
A hibiscus flower
A pink rose

A pink 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 the current vases, the appearance of hibiscus and rose together 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

A golden chrysanthemum bloom, with butterfly

A golden chrysanthemum bloom, with butterfly

Detail of a morning glory with butterfly

Detail of a morning glory with butterfly

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 have medicinal properties. Chrysanthemums are the flowers representing 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

Jasmine and butterfly

Jasmine and butterfly

A camellia flower and bud, also with butterfly

A camellia flower and bud, also with butterfly

The dainty white blossoms of the Arabian jasmine (茉莉花 molihua), which feature on these vases, 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 butterflies

Lotus petals encircle the bases of the vases 

Lotus petals encircle the bases of the vases 

Numerous butterflies flit across the surfaces
Numerous butterflies flit across the surfaces

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). Another name for the flower, 蓮 lian, sounds like the word for ‘successive’ (連 lian), and so the motif of a boy holding a lotus is a pun for continually giving birth to boy babies. An extension of this name (青蓮 qinglian) provides a rebus for 清廉 qinglian, meaning ‘incorruptible’. 

These vases also feature a wide variety of butterflies, painted with exceptional delicacy. Since the word for butterfly in Chinese, 蝶 die, is homophonous with the word 疊 die, meaning to repeat, butterflies are often included in Qing dynasty decoration in order to suggest duplication of an auspicious wish. They also express a wish for longevity. In addition, butterflies are seen as symbols of happiness in marriage, as well as everlasting romantic love. In Daoism, butterflies are associated with dream-like reflection and the freedom of the soul.