Animal Symbolism in Chinese Art
Chinese people are taught that human and animals are all integral parts of nature; we share the same eternal moral principle. Animals carry a cultural connotation and become signs of a specific idea when these metaphors are fixed.
In Chinese art, animals with meanings often pose in a major role. Below are a few of those meanings and why they are commonly portrayed.
Homophones are most direct and easy to understand reason behind animal symbolism, and the most common and representative example of this is the fish.
Fish in Chinese is yú (鱼), which sounds similar to the word yú (余), meaning “surplus”. Chinese people consider surplus better than balance in many cases, especially for fortune and food, and to end the year in surplus is a regular wish for Chinese people.
In the middle of the Yellow River there is a dangerous place named “Dragon Gate”, and in some old legends a fish called “The Cyprinid” can jump over this gate and become a dragon. People have adopted this story to symbolize a significant upward change in life.
In Chinese, “deer” is a homophone for the word lù (禄), referring to a civil official’s attractive salary. But the deer is also popular in artifacts, especially the white deer, which is thought to be one of the most auspicious animals.
Deer horns are important in Chinese medicine and re-grow every several years; for this, deer are related with the regeneration of life and means “never becoming old”.
Furthermore, in Chinese idioms, political power is compared to deer, and chasing deer implies fighting for the sovereign.
Horses and cavalry, as key elements in war, are greatly respected. People sometimes call a boy “little horse” to express their high expectation for his future.
The horse is often chosen as a substitute for the dragon in reality, due to its dragon-like head. Therefore horses are thought to be holy and appear frequently in paintings.
Bats and Spiders
The bat and the spider are two interesting cases. For Chinese people the bat alludes to happiness because its name sounds like an important Chinese concept that summarizes all good things: fú (福).
Spiders are thought to imply the classic wise man’s lifestyle: be content, not too aggressive and enjoy thyself.
As for the large predators, tigers and lions are very commonly seen in artwork. The tiger is praised as the king of beasts because the figure on its forehead is similar to the Chinese character wáng (王), meaning king.
For its ferocity, the tiger is thought of as an animal that can counteract evil forces. But imported lions seem to defeat the king of beasts and play an even more major role.
Lions came to China via Buddhism during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). At the beginning, lions were confined in the palace where ordinary people had no access to them. They were depicted as a mysterious animal and people built statues of them to guard graves and households.
Later, it became common to put two lion statues on both sides of the gates of buildings – but because of the cost, this was available only for government institutions and the wealthy.
Some animals reflect a custom or institution. Officials would have specific animal images in their uniforms, so the species for higher ranks became symbols of honor. The emblem for the highest rank is a crane, so the bird became a mascot for officials.
Cranes have an inclination to live in far off places and keep away from noisy and dirty things. In traditional views, a man of noble character should preserve his moral integrity, not seek fame and wealth aggressively, just like a crane.
In addition, this bird can live up to 50 or 60 years – so cranes, especially when painted under a pine tree, also represent a hope for long life.
The mandarin duck is a bird more closely associated to the average person’s life. A waterfowl only seen in China and always appear in couples. It is said that the mandarin duck only has one partner in life; if one dies, the other will not live alone.
In an old legend, a fisherman seized a male mandarin duck, killed and boiled it. The female mandarin duck then followed the fisherman to his boat, jumped into the boiling pot and cried until it was dead. Therefore, mandarin ducks are seen as symbols of faithful and constant love.