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Oriental China - Symbolic Designs

( Originally Published 1911 )

WE have already remarked how the Chinese employed ornament to their works in porcelain, not alone to please the eye, but to elevate the mind at the same time. It is evident that the realisation of these two aims must have been dependent not alone upon the highest technical skill, but upon the religious knowledge either possessed by the artist or handed down in traditional form from generation to generation. Hence the character of their work was determined and imbued by religious influences.

In every age pottery has been a vehicle for the display of art, and the wonderful productions of the East embody in symbolised form the highest aspirations of religions with which we are but imperfectly acqainted.

The deer (Chinese luh, Japanese roku) is also an emblem of longevity. A white stag frequently accompanies the god of longevity. It sometimes carries in its mouth another emblem, the fungus. A deer, however, is also used as a symbol of official emolument or prosperity, having the same sound as the word for the latter (luh). It is probably for this reason that we find a fawn accompanying the Japanese god of talent, Toshitoku.

The fox (Chinese hu, Japanese kitsu-ne) is considered, especially in Japan, as a very mysterious animal. There are several wonderful legends concerning it in Mitford's " Tales of Old Japan." It is said to attain the same age as the hare, when it is admitted to the heavens and becomes the celestial fox. It controls the official seals of high officials.

The hare (Chinese tu, Japanese usagi) is sacred to the moon, where the Taoists believe it to live, pounding the drugs that form the elixir of life. It is stated to live one thousand years, and to become white when it has reached the first five hundred years. The hare, often miscalled a rabbit, occurs on porcelain, both as a decoration and as a mark.

The stork (Chinese ho, Japanese tsuru) is one of the commonest emblems of longevity. It is said to reach a fabulous age, and when six hundred years old to drink, but no longer eat; after two thousand years to turn black. It occurs as a mark.

The tortoise (Chinese kwei, Japanese ki or kame) was also a supernatural animal, and its shell was used in divination. The tortoise with a hairy tail is depicted in Japan as an attendant on the god of old age, and is used as an emblem of longevity. A Chinese phrase, Kwei-ho-tung-chun, signifies " May your days be as long as the tortoise and stork."


Among plants are three trees, which, though not all, strictly speaking, emblems of longevity, are closely connected with it; these are the pine-tree, bamboo, and plum. These three trees are termed by the Japanese in combination Sho-chiku-bai. The Chinese say " the pine, bamboo, and plum are like three friends, because they keep green in cold weather."

The bamboo (Chinese chuh, Japanese take) is another emblem, owing probably to its durability. Its elegant form causes it frequently to be depicted on works of art, both in China and Japan.

The gourd (Chinese hu-lu, Japanese hiotan or fuku be) is also an emblem of longevity, especially in Japan, owing perhaps to its durability when dried.

The peach (Chinese tao, Japanese mama) is a symbol of marriage, but also of longevity. Great virtues were attributed to the peach, especially that which grew near the palace of Si-Wang-Mu, Queen of the Genii, on which the fruit ripened but once in three thousand years. It is represented with a bat as a mark.

The pine-tree (Chinese sung, Japanese matsu) is a very common emblem, and to be found on many specimens. Its sap was said to turn into amber when the tree was one thousand years old.

The plum-tree or prunus (Chinese mei, Japanese mume), though not properly an emblem of longevity, is indirectly connected with it, as the philosopher, Lao Tsze, the founder of the Taoist sect, is said to have been born under a plum-tree. It forms the decoration of the porcelain erroneously termed "may flower " or "hawthorn pattern."


Artemesia.—The artemesia was used by the Chinese with the sweet flag to allay pain and to drive away demons.

Azalea.—The azalea, without having any special symbolical signification, was eminently useful for decorative purposes, because, as a common flower on the hills of the north-east provinces, it gave brightness to a scene of surpassing beauty in the central flowery land.

Camellia.—The camellia bears the same name as the tea plant, and the term cha is used to denote any infusion, just as the word " tea " is with us, as when we speak of beef-tea, camomile-tea, and so on.

Chrysanthemum.—Chrysanthemums, like the asters, were reared for their beauty. They are, perhaps, the commonest form of flower decoration on Oriental china, and we cannot be surprised at this when we consider the variety and the richness of the colour of this beautiful plant. It was an emblem of mid-autumn—more than that, it was a symbol of pleasurable enjoyment—hence its presence on a piece of porcelain given as a token of esteem, also a wish that all should be well with the recipient.

Cockscomb. — The cockscomb was very much admired by the Chinese, and was not alone used as a decoration for porcelain, but for many of those interesting pictures on glass which portray birds and flowers, and which, though painted in a similar way to the early paintings on glass known to Western nations, exceeded them by the brilliancy of their colours and by their exact resemblance to nature.

Convolvulus.—The convolvulus was painted around the edges of tanks and pools, not alone for decoration, but because the leaves of some varieties made a very succulent green food.

Flag, or Iris.—The flag, or iris, known as the sweet flag, was placed at the doors of houses to prevent all manner of evil from entering, but it had a material use as a medicine much used for its spicy warmth.

Fungus.—The fungus when dried was very durable. It grew at the roots of trees, and many imitations of it in gilt wood, or even dried specimens of the fungus itself, were frequently used as decoration in the temples. In pictures of Lao-tsze and the Immortals it is used as a symbol of longevity or immortality, hence it is found carried in the mouth of the white stag, which is also an emblem of immortality. Occasionally it is used as a mark on the bases of specimens of old Kang-he blue, in which case it often has lines around its base to represent the grass through which it grows.

Jasmine.—The jasmine, a sweet-smelling white flower, is largely grown for its scent, but still more as a favourite flower amongst the Chinese women for personal ornament, its twigs and clusters or blossoms being wound in the hair, and it was planted in the pots in the houses.

Lotus, or Nelumbium.—The lotus, or nelumbium, was a sacred flower representing the creative power in the Buddhist religion. Representations of it frequently occurred not alone in connection with Buddhism, but also with Taoism. Kwan-Yin is often shown seated upon the lotus. Ho Seen-koo has the lotus as her emblem; and, generally, whether considered with regard to its utility or to its beauty the sacred lotus was placed by the Chinese at the head of the cultivated flowers. It has a very close resemblance to our English water lily, having the stock inserted near the centre of the leaf. Both seeds and root are articles of food, and, when cultivated for that purpose rather than for ornament, covers large areas of lakes and marshes.

Narcissus.—The narcissus is an emblem of good luck for the coming year. Just as with us in England the narcissus is a harbinger of spring, so in the new year at Canton the budding flowers of the narcissus, almond, plum, peach, and bell-flower, all are emblematic, all express a wish for coming prosperity.

Magnolia.—The magnolia has immense flowers and has been selected as the emblem of sweetness and beauty. The name in Chinese means "secretly smiling," and to the Chinese it suggests the lovely smile of a sweet maiden. Where in designs on porcelain beautiful women are drawn this flower usually accompanies them. China furnishes several species of this lovely flowering plant. Its medicinal use is secured from the bark employed as a febrifuge.

Myrtle.—The myrtle grows as a wild plant with lovely rose-coloured flowers, one species of it produces clusters of berries, which are eaten as fruit.

Oleander.—This flower is prized because of its beauty and fragrance. The tender rose pink lends itself easily to schemes of porcelain decoration. Members of the same group, less attractive, but still pretty, are the yellow milk-weed and the red periwinkle.

Olive.—The olive is noted for the fragrance of the clusters of minute flowers of white and yellow. This plant flowers through a great part of the year. A branch of sweet-smelling olive was a reward of literary merit. It was also symbolical of studious pursuits, and of sweetness generally.

Peach.—The peach blossoms were placed in door-ways at the New Year as the " peach charm." A branch of the tree, covered with blossoms, was supposed to prevent the entry of evil demons into the home.

Peony.—Next to the chrysanthemum the peony was effective in the decoration of Chinese porcelain. It was a tree in that land, valued for its fine and variegated flowers. It was emblematical of good fortune, but if the plant did not supply beautiful flowers and green leaves, if the leaves fell off and its flowers suddenly faded, such a change foreshadowed poverty or some overwhelming disaster. It was also an emblem of love and affection, and therefore eminently appropriate for use on presentation pieces of porcelain.

Poppy.—The poppy was not alone grown for the production of opium, but for its beautiful flowers.

Rose.—This flower was as great a favourite with the Chinese as with all other nations. Many species and varieties were natives of this country. Like the jasmine, it was used by the women for personal adornment.

Tobacco.—This plant was grown almost everywhere in China, but its strength varied according to soil and climate. In the north it was of a pale colour, while further south it is said to owe its reddish colour to being steeped in a solution of opium.

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