Every symbol in Chinese textiles had significance, and evolved from several philosophies and concepts. The Chinese enjoy puns and plays on words, and often designs were used if their verbal sound or written character was similar to a quality or virtue. Hence, because the words for bat and happiness sound similar, bat became the symbol for happiness.
The invention of the draw loom and the development of jacquards and brocades allowed patterns to be woven into the cloth. Common patterns included checks, diamonds, zig-zags, coins, clouds, dragons, lions, horses, flowers, birds and fish. Brocades were often over-embroidered to augment the woven patterns (a technique I now employ on my hats…)
During the Song Dynasty a variety of brocade and jacquard patterns were in common usage, including the following motif combinations:
- dragon and flowers
- dragon and phoenix
- dragons in medallions pursuing jewels (this also shows up in Byzantine textiles, possibly as a Chinese import)
- pheasant and stork
- cherries and cherry blossoms
- lotus and tortoise
- tortoise and snake
- lion dogs and balls
- water weeds and fish
- tree peonies
- peacocks (this also shows up in Byzantine and European textiles, possibly as a Chinese import)
- geese and clouds
Sun - heaven, intellectual enlightenment, sovereign on earth, male attributes
A red circle enclosing a three legged male phoenix, set over clouds. The three feet signify the masculine essence of the sun; the bird is also known as the Yu Hua, and it often flies to Earth to feed on the Plant of Immortality
Moon - home of the Hare who prepares the elixir of immortality with a mortar and pestle
Pale blue, surrounded by clouds, or greyish pink, over curling waves. Female attributes.
Stars - three circles joined by 45 degree lines to form the eternal unity of sun, moon and earth
Sun, Moon and Stars combined were symbolic of knowledge gained through the understanding of nature.
Mountains - earth, steadfastness and longevity
Mountains are often placed just above the the center of the wave pattern on the hem of court robes (which was embroidered in the twelve colors). It is often depicted in tandem with the Flaming Pearl, symbolic of the eternal pursuit of wisdom.
Dragon - the most imperial of the twelve symbols
The five-toed dragon is reserved for the Emperor and his heirs, four-toed for court officials, three-toed for lesser nobility. It is the emblem of strength, goodness, viligence and safeguard, and when used in tandem with the ax and pheasant, judicial powers of the court are implied.
Pheasant - literary refinement, education. Depicted standing on a rock in the sea, facing the sun.
Fu - dates from prehistoric times and may have been composed from the lines of the Eight Trigrams. It symbolizes the emperor's responsibility to create a happy nation.
Water weed - purity and adaptability to changing times
Grain (not shown) - symbolizing the emperor's responsibility to feed his people
Fire – zeal, love of virtue, brilliance of spirit and intellect (a Buddhist concept)
Ax - emperor-s power to inflict punishment, also seen as a symbol of warriors
The Dragon and Phoenix
This pairing have long been reserved for the Emperor and Empress, with variants reserved for ranking members of their household. The Dragon and Phoenix were considered two of the four intelligent creatures of China, and will be covered in greater detail in a separate blog.
Symbols related to the Military and Civil Service Ranking System
To delineate rank among officials at court, the hereditary nobles of the 1st rank could not wear the sun, moon and stars, but could wear the remaining 9 symbols of authority. Officials of the 2nd and 3rd ranks could not wear sun, moon and stars, and additionally, mountains and dragons, but could wear the remaining symbols of authority. The pecking order in embroidered embellishments on court robes followed suite for the remaining official rankings.
During the Ming Dynasty this ranking system evolved into more obvious identifiers for both military and civil service officials. Rank was marked by the button at the top of the hat, and embroidered patches sewn to the front and back of official court robes. Wives of both military and civil service officials wore similar patches to those of their husbands on formal occasions.
Rank Color of Button Military Patch Civil Service Patch 1st Red and gold Unicorn White Crane 2nd Ruby, gold and coral Lion Gold Pheasant 3rd Blue stone sapphire Panther Peacock 4th Lapis lazuli Tiger Goose 5th Crystal Black Bear Silver Pheasant 6th White Jade Mottled Bear Egret 7th Gold and crystal Tiger Mandarin Duck 8th Gold Seal Quail 9th Gold Rhino Flycatcher
The Eight Precious Things
These symbols signify the spiritual attributes of the enlightened Buddha. They are often seen with ribbons (called fillets) either encircling them or weaving through the motif:
Parasol - nobility that sheds the heat of desire
Conch - calls the people to prayer, also considered a symbol of royalty and victory, in modern symbology a prosperous voyage
Double Fish - happiness and utility, wealth and abundance, yin and yang
Endless Knot - longevity, the path to happiness that knows neither beginning nor end
Canopy – respect, victory over religions
Vase - believed to contain the elixir of heaven and immortality, the symbol of supreme intelligence
Wheel of Chakra - also known as the Dharma or Wheel of Law, the Buddhist teachings which lead a disciple to Nirvana
Lotus - divine purity, summer and fruitfulness (as on offspring). It is considered a sacred flower by Buddhists.
The Eight Ordinary Objects
These objects are secular in nature though they may imply Confucian and Taoist concepts. They are commonly mixed in with the Eight Precious Things, and are also usually depicted with a red fillet, which is believed to add efficacy to them when used as charms:
Pearl (at left) - believed to be able to grant wishes to the holder. It is also a symbol of genius in obscurity. I believe this evolved into the Flaming Pearl, depicted as an item chased by the Dragon.
Coin - wealth and prosperity, protection for children when worn on a red cord.
Lozenge (at left) - an open lozenge, sometimes with an inner compartment, symbolizes victory
Pair of Books - scholarly learning
Painting (at left) - a closed lozenge is used to symbolize art
Stone chime – honor, musical accomplishment
Rhino Horns - happiness
Artemisia Leaf - a plant of good omen and prevention of disease
Common flora and fauna
Plum blossoms - beauty and winter. As the first flower to bloom after winter, it symbolizes courage and hope. It is also a symbol of longeveity, due to a legend about an artist who nearly died of thirst while crossing a desert. In desperation, he painted a plum blossom so realistically, that every time he looked at it, his mouth watered, and it saved his life.
Plum, Pine and Bamboo, which all signify longevity, are often combined together as "the Three Friends"
Peony (at left) - wealth and spring, riches and honor, and respectability. It is also the symbol of masculine beauty.
Chrysanthemum - mid-autumn and pleasure, also the symbol of feminine beauty.
Peach - symbolic of marriage and immortality, figures prominently in the Monkey King stories.
Butterfly – joy, summer, marital bliss and fidelity. Interestingly, this symbolism came from the story of Chuang Tzu, the philosopher who dreamed he was a butterfly, and found great joy in his dreams as he flitted from flower to flower, drinking sweet nectar. When he awoke, he wondered if he was a butterfly, dreaming that he was now a man. It’s one of my favorite stories…
Lion - valor and energy. Often shown playing with a ball or a flaming pearl, often mistaken for a fu-dog. Female lions are often shown with cubs.
Bat - the character for bat and happiness are both pronounced "fu". It is an especially auspicious symbol of joy when depicted in red. Five bats joined in a circle, usually around a 'shou' character, signify the five great blessings of Happiness, Wealth, Peace, Virtue and Longevity.
Color Symbolism and Usage
Colors used to create items for celebrations such as weddings, birthdays and New Year were rich, vibrant and in high contrast. Items embroidered for every day wear in metropolitan areas tended to be more soft and subdued. Nomads tended towards brighter colors to offset the monochromatic hues of the landscape they lived in. By the Qing Dynasty, dyers had so perfected their art that records reflect the use of 88 colors, with 745 shades, which were especially useful for shading and color blending in both embroidery and weaving.
The Five Colors of the Universe each represented a direction, element and an animal. Specific colors and/or shades were reserved for specific military and civilian ranks during some dynastic rules in both China and Mongolia:
- Red (south, fire, phoenix) was a sacred color in Mongolia, and the color of joy and festivals and weddings in China. Red could not be work for 27 months after the death of a parent. Pinks, peach, apricot and purples were considered shades of red.
- Yellow (center, earth) was sacred in both Mongolia and China and was reserved for monks and the Emperor. It is the color of measure and balance, eternal light and consummate harmony. Yellow clouds denote prosperity.
- Blue/green (east, wood, dragon). Blue was reserved for the Prime Minister during the Song Dynasty and was the color of royalty and 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree officials during the Ming Dynasty. Some pale greys and of-whites were categorized as blue or green. The Chinese character ‘Qing’ means both blue and green; for the sake of color symbolism the two colors are interchangeable.
- White (west, metal, tiger) denotes moral purity. It was the color of joy and festival at court during the Yuan Dynasty, but became the color of mourning in subsequent dynasties to present day. I believe this is a result of the defeat of the Mongolian navy in its attempt to conquer Japan during the Yuan Dynasty.
- Black (north, water, tortoise, snake) - the color of bruising, vice and evil, and seldom used as it is unpopular.
- Brown was the color of royalty during the Song Dynasty. Thirty to fifty shades were in recorded use during the Yuan Dynasty.
Gold and silver were used to outline other motifs, with gold being the symbolic of greater wealth than silver.
The Art of Oriental Embroidery; Young Yang Chung, Ph.D.; Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York
Chinese Carpets and Rugs; Adolf Hackmack; Dover Publications, Inc., 1972
Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives; C.A.S. Williams; Charles E. Tuttle Co., Tokyo 1974