How to read symbols in Chinese art

How to read symbols in Chinese art

Specialist Ivy Chan on the significance of traditional motifs, from clever monkeys to dignified peacocks

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  • Harmonious cranes

A pair of cloisonné enamel cranes, 19th century. This work was offered in Inspired Themes a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £19,375

A pair of cloisonné enamel cranes, 19th century. This work was offered in Inspired Themes: a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £19,375

With a life expectancy of more than 20 years, cranes symbolise longevity. The Chinese word for crane, he, sounds similar to the word for ‘harmony’. A pair of cranes can therefore signify a harmonious marriage: specifically a happy, long-lasting union.

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  • Bats and fungi — a happy combination

A white and russet jade ruyi-form washer. Qianglong period (1736-1795). This work was offered in Inspired Themes a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £110,500

A white and russet jade ruyi-form washer. Qianglong period (1736-1795). This work was offered in Inspired Themes: a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £110,500

This washer is shaped as a large lingzhi — a medicinal fungus symbolising longevity and good wishes. Two bats in flight are carved into and highlighted by the russet area of the jade, representing happiness or blessings; the Chinese word for bat is fu, which provides the homophone — a word with the same sound — for ‘happiness’.

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  • Peacocks of enlightenment

A rare Imperial cloisionné and champlevé enamel ‘peacocks’ group. Qianlong Period (1736-1795). This work was offered in Inspired Themes a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £74,500

A rare Imperial cloisionné and champlevé enamel ‘peacocks’ group. Qianlong Period (1736-1795). This work was offered in Inspired Themes: a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £74,500

One of China’s oldest and most influential texts, the I Ching, or Book of Changes, describes the peacock as a cultured bird with nine virtues. It had a dignified appearance and a clear voice, walked with grace, and was punctual. Content and loyal to its fellows, the peacock was also restrained in its appetite, and capable of learning from its mistakes.

Over time, the peacock became synonymous with culture and enlightenment — in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), imperial fans were made of peacock feathers and only officials of the highest rank were permitted to wear a hat with a peacock feather and coral knob.


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  • For those seeking promotion

A white jade ‘horse and monkey’ carving, 18th century. This work was offered in Inspired Themes a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £50,000

A white jade ‘horse and monkey’ carving, 18th century. This work was offered in Inspired Themes: a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £50,000

Individually the monkey symbolises cleverness and agility, while the horse represents strength and speed. The depiction of a monkey on a horse’s back represents the rebus ‘Ma shang feng hou’ , which may be translated as ‘May you receive a swift promotion to a high rank of office’. This popular motif would have been used to confer good wishes to ambitious individuals within officialdom.

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  • The Emperor and Empress

A moulded famille rose ‘Dragon and Phoenix’ bowl and cover. Qianlong-Jiaqing period (1736-1820). This work was offered in Inspired Themes a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £11,250

A moulded famille rose ‘Dragon and Phoenix’ bowl and cover. Qianlong-Jiaqing period (1736-1820). This work was offered in Inspired Themes: a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £11,250

The dragon and the phoenix represent the height of power and auspiciousness. Emblematic of male prowess, strength and divine rule, the dragon symbolises the Emperor of China and is ranked first among mythical beasts — believed to bring fertility to the land.

The phoenix, on the other hand, represents female authority, benevolence and beauty, and is associated with the Empress of China. The phoenix appears during times of peace and prosperity; it is believed that when Confucius was born, the phoenix announced the emergence of the great man. The combination of dragon and phoenix is often seen at weddings, conveying blessings and good fortune.

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  • Successful sons

A turquoise-ground famille rose ‘five boys’ vase. Qianlong six-character seal mark in iron-red and of the period (1736-1795). This work was offered in Inspired Themes a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £362,500

A turquoise-ground famille rose ‘five boys’ vase. Qianlong six-character seal mark in iron-red and of the period (1736-1795). This work was offered in Inspired Themes: a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £362,500

In Chinese art the depiction of young boys at play is considered a sign of good fortune, representing the blessing of having many sons to carry on the family name. The combination of five boys derives from the saying wu zi deng ke, referring to the supreme achievement of five sons from the same family passing the civil service examination.

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  • The five sacred peaks

A pair of archaistic gilt-decorated bronze vases, Gu. Kangxi period (1622-1722). This work was offered in Inspired Themes a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £17,500

A pair of archaistic gilt-decorated bronze vases, Gu. Kangxi period (1622-1722). This work was offered in Inspired Themes: a Fine Selection of Chinese Works of Art on 10 May 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £17,500

The talismanic gilt-decorated diagrams on these vases represent the ‘true forms’ of the ‘Five Sacred Peaks’, or Wuyue Zhenxing, and are believed to bring their bearer good fortune. The five peaks represent the five cardinal directions of Chinese geomancy — East, West, South , North and Centre. Together they reach a balance in cosmic order, and also symbolise the Five Elements of metal, fire, wood, water and earth. According to legend the ‘true forms’ were given to Han dynasty Emperor Wudi (r. 140-87 BC) by the ancient Chinese goddess Xiwangmu — or the Queen Mother of the West. Wudi had them mounted and encased in precious materials, and gave a copy to one of his ministers. The tradition continued, with subsequent versions believed to be based on Wudi’s original. Followers of Daoist philosophy believe that wearing a representation of the ‘true forms’ invokes protection from the gods.