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Oriental China - Symbolic Marks And Ornaments

( Originally Published 1911 )

"EVERY picture tells its story " is true when applied to Oriental decoration where history and mythology furnish many of the designs, and almost every flower and colour has its own meaning. On the porcelain many of these devices are used either as marks or ornaments ; sometimes they have ribbons or fillets entwined around them, and they vary considerably in style and shape. Those given are from Sir A. W. Franks's book, " The Catalogue of the Franks' Collection of Oriental Porcelain and Pottery," exhibited at the Bethnal Green Museum.

The symbols set out are found on blue and white porcelain as well as on pieces of "famille verte," powdered blue, and old specimens decorated with coloured enamels generally of a very good quality.


No. 1. The pearl, which as an ornament is frequently represented in the air with dragons.

No. 2. The conch shell, a well-known Buddhist emblem which signifies a prosperous journey.

No. 3. A musical instrument. According to Mr. Gulland, who searched Mr. Salting's Collection at the Museum, South Kensington, i8 pieces, mostly blue and white, have this mark.

Nos. 4, 5, 6. Three of the varieties of a lozenge shape ; sometimes it has the swastika in the centre.

Nos. 7, 8, 9. Various fish symbols. Sometimes a pair of fishes is found in a vase form, but this Buddhist symbol is an emblem of domestic happiness.

No. 10. A group comprising a pencil, cake of ink, and sceptre of longevity, the whole expressing the wish, " May things be fixed as you wish."

No. 11. The hare, an emblem of longevity. The hare is connected by legend with the moon, and the mark is found on pieces coloured black and yellow, and on blue and white of good quality.

No. 12. A pair of rhinoceros horns used as a mark and in other forms as a symbol. Mr. Gulland's examination gave a rather striking result. About 96O pieces are in the Salting Collection, perhaps the finest of its kind in the world. Of these 130 pieces had date marks, 52 being on coloured pieces and 78 on blue and white. The other marks, mostly symbol marks, were found on 169 pieces, of which 77 were coloured and 92 blue and white. This gives a total of 299 marked pieces.

Nos. 13, 14, 15, 16. Varieties of leaves. Some-times the leaves are filleted. In the Salting Collection 45 pieces had the leaf mark, which is chiefly found on blue and white.

Nos. 17, 18. The lotus flower, without fillets, the specimens in the same collection were coloured.

Nos. 19, 20, 21, 22. Varieties of the Che plant mostly found on blue and white, a kind of fungus used as an emblem of longevity and occasionally found in vase form, of natural shape, in self-colour, such as " sang-de-boeuf."

No. 23. The peach and conventional bat. The peach signifies longevity, and the bat happiness. The two together embody the wish for " A two-fold perpetuation of happiness and long life."

No. 24. Four-leaved flower, on blue and white.

No. 25. Flower with eight or sixteen leaves.

No. 26. Five-leaved flower, on blue and white. A six-leaved flower is also found on blue and white.

No. 27. Joo-e-head. There is no form so universal for decorative purposes as the Joo-e, here given as a mark on blue and white. Panels and borders have modifications of this form in endless variety. The fungus as emblem of longevity was adopted in this form as the head of the sceptre of longevity, and the Joo-e has remained a classical pattern.

No. 28. Five circles with fillets, found on old coloured specimens.

No. 29. A knot (chang) said to signify longevity, found on blue and white.

No. 30. An insect, found on blue and white. No. 31. Stork or heron without a tail. Note the Dresden engraved number below.

Nos. 32, 33, 34, 35. Varieties of incense burners (tings), found on blue and white. Several other marks are to be found, notably on porcelain of good quality.


These symbols are sometimes, as we have seen, used as marks. But they are also used in decoration, being coloured in enamel colours and often placed in shaped reserves. The number eight seems to have an attraction for the Chinese. Here we have what are termed "the eight precious things," and, later, the Buddhist emblems, "the eight lucky emblems," are given. It is not necessary to do more than name these ordinary symbols:

No. 1. A pearl.

No. 2. A coin, symbol of riches, often forms a border to plates and dishes.

No. 3. Lozenge with open frame. Two lozenges with overlapping ends are used to express the dual symbol.

No. 4. A mirror.

No. 5. A sounding-plate used as a bell.

No. 6. Books placed close together, probably another dual symbol.

No. 7. Rhinoceros horns—conventional form.

No. 8. A leaf.

Some or all of these objects may frequently be seen carried in processions or on pictures of such processions.


Here, again, we have some forms which have been dealt with as marks.

No. 1. A bell. In place of this, the wheel of the law is frequently used.

No. 2. The conch shell, the chank shell of the Buddhists.

No. 3. A state umbrella.

No. 4. A canopy.

No. 5. The lotus flower again.

No. 6. A vase with cover.

No. 7. Two fishes. Connubial felicity.

No. 8. A knot said to represent the intestines and to be an emblem of longevity.


A silver ingot, a cake of ink or a branch of coral may be found as emblems of riches, scholarship, or power, but there remain three devices which deserve a few words. The first is the Pa-kwa, consisting of eight diagrams of entire and broken lines. The entire lines represent the male, strong or celestial element in nature ; and the broken ones the female weak, terrestrial element. An entire system of Chinese philosophy is built upon this combination, and not only so, but they furnish a " clue to the secrets of nature and of being." The trigrams are often represented upon specimens of porcelain, especially on raised decorations, with or without a central circular device, the Yang and the Yin, another representation of the male and female elements in nature. The second device is the bat. The word in Chinese has exactly the same sound as the word meaning " happiness," so that the bat has come to be regarded as a symbol of happiness. The figure of a bat is sometimes used alone ; chiefly, however, we find four or five bats surrounding the seal character for longevity. This is the third of the devices. The character for longevity (show in Chinese) is regarded as very auspicious, and it is written in no less than a hundred different ways. When used with the five bats surrounding it, the five great blessings are symbolised —longevity, riches, peacefulness, love of virtue, and a happy death.

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