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Auspicious Symbols in Chinese Furniture
Take a long appreciative gaze at a carved Chinese window screen, the extraordinary gilt painting on a cabinet door, or the fret work on the waist of a fine bamboo altar table… and you’ re likely to find something gazing right back.
A bat, perhaps, or a herd of butterflies, or several Chinese characters with a clear and detailed message, just for you.
Chinese furniture and the imagery that goes with it are full of symbols, all of them well meaning and all of them auspicious
Bats, for example, are not viewed as flying furry creatures designed to scare you in the night. Far from it. They are a way of wishing you great things, from good luck to long life.
These images are visual puns, one thing that sounds like another. The Chinese world for “bat” is bian fu and the word for “good fortune” is fu. A bat depicted on a window screen or the painting on a cabinet is a way of saying “good luck.” These visual puns were both fanciful and necessary, since so many Chinese, notably women, were illiterate.
Bats, in fact, are about as good as a good lucks symbol can get, which is why you see them so often in furniture. Two bats facing each other means “double luck.” Bats also symbolize longevity because, according to Chinese lore, they live a long time (in fact, about 20 years) and because their body parts were used to make medicine that promoted long life.
Butterflies suggest joy and a happy marriage, which is why you see butterflies so often on the dowry furniture that a bridge brought to her marriage. Peaches mean prosperity and long life. The color red brings good luck because it wards off evil. And a pomegranate wishes you 100 children (sons, more precisely).
But, let’s flutter back to butterfly symbols, because, like so many things Chinese, they can be a bit more complex. The sweet suggestion of marital bliss stems from the fact that a butterfly “sips” nectar from the cup of a flower, a female symbol, and from the poetic description of sexual intimacy as “love-crazed butterfly and wild bee.” This explains why butterflies often appear on furniture destined for a wife’s section of the house.
But butterflies also show up on furniture with less intimate overtones, specifically on pieces with a masculine persona - a cabinet that, for example, might be placed in a scholar’s studio. The Chinese word for butterfly is hu-die, and the word for a man in his seventies (a remarkably long life in pre-20th century China) is die. So butterflies can also be a wish for long life, to live to the age of 70.
But all is not blissful in the world of butterflies. Fen die means “powdered butterfly” and is a metaphor for an insincere male. A butterfly image on a 17th century porcelain brush pot is accompanied by the inscription: “Powdered butterflies, stealing floral fragrance, summon empty dreams.” It refers to the emptiness brought by an unfaithful man who steals love from a woman.
The lattice work on window screens is a geometric image of a lotus blossom (the lattice work often appears to have a random pattern, but viewing the screen from the side often reveals one or several lotus blossoms. Nothing in Chinese imagery is random.). The word for “lotus” is lian, which means continuous – all the more appropriate since the lotus plant can produce both blossom and fruit at the same time… very auspicious. So the appearance of the lotus is a wish for continuous life, luck, wealth, children… you can pretty much fill in the blanks. Two lotus blossoms seen together represent harmony, a pun on another word for lotus – he hua – and an appropriate image for a wedding.
The peony joints the company of important flowers and, depending on the context in which it is presented, can mean wealth, nobility, female beauty and peace.
A vase becomes more than a vessel for flowers. The Chinese word, ping , sounds identical to the word for “peace.” An image of a vase, found frequently painted on the door of cabinets, creates multiple opportunities for good wishes , since it can be filled with other symbols, such as peonies, peach blossoms, lotus blossoms, etc.
Clouds, yun, bring the most basic of good fortune and happiness because they bring rain, an important ingredient to happiness in an agrarian economy. In furniture, clouds are often depicted in relief carving on the waist of a table or stool. When several clouds join in a pattern, it is a wish for ongoing good fortune. In painted images and in poetry, clouds and rain together, yun yu, mean sexual intimacy.
Clouds gather in another important symbol, the ruyi, or scepter, which shows swirling clouds gathering in a peak. It means good fortune and prosperity, and is found carved on a variety of furniture – frequently on the back splats of chairs, the side panels of altar tables, within the lattice carving on cabinets, but always as a focal point. The meaning of ruyi is “everything as you wish.”
Fish rank high in the scales of life because the world sounds the same as yu, which means “plenty.” Fish are also nature’s way of providing plenty of food, a vital concept in a country periodically devastated by drought. More to the point, fish are also a basic element of man’s relation to the cosmos. Legend has it that, about 5000 years ago, a fish (specifically, a carp) swimming in a river leapt up and turned into a snake, which rose up into the sky and became a dragon, which came back down to earth as the first emperor.
Dragons themselves show up often in furniture and paintings as symbols of almost everything good and important, depending on the context or type of dragon, but notably power and authority. For centuries, a five-toed dragon symbolized the emperor and cloud only be used on objects directly associated with him. Everyone else’s dragon had four toes. (The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a 15th century red lacquer table with a dragon carved into its surface, and since the table originally belonged to an emperor, the dragon’s claws originally had five toes. But when the table was given to the emperor’s son, one toe was removed.) The stricture began to break down in the late 19th century, and five-toed dragons proliferated like pomegranates.
The word for goldfish, jin yu, sounds just like the characters for “abundance of gold.” Monkey, hou, sounds like “high ranking official” and is a wish for promotion.
Some of the actual Chinese characters make it onto the furniture, especially bamboo pieces where the fret work assembles to spell out words, such as the characters for longevity, prosperity and double happiness (interlocking rings).
Cr. “Old China / New Style Antique Furniture & Accessories 1780-1930”