While exploring Chinese works of art is an enriching experience even if you don’t possess specialist knowledge, it is definitely true that there’s more to it than meets the eye. The very concept of art, in fact, is quite different from what’s reflected by Western practices.
In Chinese culture, art is generally considered a guiding light for whomever practices or experiences it. This helps to explain why, in traditional Chinese art, violent or shocking scenes are mostly absent. Beauty, moreover, is not the sole or ultimate purpose of artistic creation. While it is important for the onlooker to be charmed, any work of art should first and foremost embody the artist’s inner essence.
Chinese artists turned to nature to fuel their imaginations and craftsmanship, their oeuvre being viewed as an expression of their character and emotions, rather than their skills. In that respect, Chinese art reflects the Daoist philosophy of observing a harmonious, respectful relationship with nature instead of exploiting it.
Elements of nature are never used for the sake of art alone. As flowers, fruits, trees and animals are committed to the canvas or paper, they reflect a process of observation, internalization and communication, showing how the artist has crossed the bridge from the physical to the metaphysical.
Beyond demonstrating a reverence to nature, the integration of elements of fauna and flora in works of art often takes on complex symbolic meanings. Bamboo, for example, is associated with scholars, whose spirit cannot be broken as they stand firm in their belief. It has come to represent moral integrity, modesty and loyalty.
Purity is represented by the orchid – a Confucian symbol – as well as by the winter plum and the lotus flower. The latter can be added to other symbols to increase their power. Lotus seeds, moreover, are tokens for a couple’s potential to grow a large family.
The value of each of these symbols is rooted in myth and legend, explaining their association with certain qualities and effects. The peach, for instance, is said to stem from a tree grown by a goddess, that would bloom only once in a thousand years.
To ripen, moreover, a peach would take 3,000 years. The eight legendary Chinese figures called the Immortals, eager to have a Feast of the Peach, had to wait for 6,000 years for the event to happen. As a result, the peach is associated with longevity and immortality.
Among the large range of recurring animal motifs are the mandarin duck - symbolizing loyalty and fertility - the crane, representing longevity, and the rooster, which stands for good fortune, prosperity, and wealth.
The rooster is also one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac that take pride of place in the country’s glossary of natural symbols. Based on the lunar calendar, animals such as the horse, monkey, goat and rabbit, together with their reputed attributes, are connected with each of the years in a 12-year cycle. Depending on a person’s date of birth, the characteristics associated with these animals are believed to reveal something about who they are or could be, and to offer guidance with respect to important life choices.
Like the horse, the butterfly is associated with the season of summer and signifies joy. This belief is rooted in a story about Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, who started to question the essence of his existence after having had a dream about being a butterfly .
The butterfly also stands for grace, happiness and romantic bliss. This goes back to one of China’s most well-known legends: In The Butterfly Lovers or Liang Zhu, two young lovers are scorned by their opposing families. Death tears them apart, but through loyalty and love the couple reunites, heading for eternal bliss as a pair of butterflies.
Like many symbols, the butterfly-motif gains and adds meaning when used in combination with others. Together with a plum, it points to a long and joyful life. With a chrysanthemum, longevity is connected to beauty. A butterfly carved from jade or two butterflies flying together represent romantic love. Flying solo, the butterfly symbolizes a rich social life.
The butterfly as a symbol is seen around the world, often taking on similar meanings. The ancient Egyptians considered it to be a good luck charm, as do the Japanese. For the ancient Greeks, the butterfly coming out of its cocoon signified a newborn coming into the world. In Northern America, it’s the association of the butterfly with summer that feeds into its connection with fertility.
As this example helps to demonstrate, scripts, languages and cultural practices might vary extensively across the globe, but networks of symbols and the beliefs they rest upon are often surprisingly alike.