Animal symbolism in Chinese furniture
As in most other cultures across the world, animals have been used in China to symbolise many different concepts, from human characteristics such as wisdom or strength, to more intangible ideas such as long life or prosperity. Many of these animals are seen in the carvings and paintings that decorate much of the furniture from around China, with even the most rudimentary of items often having auspicious symbols incorporated into the design.
This beautifully crafted garment rail is one of the finer examples we have seen, with ornate open carvings showing various animals from the Chinese zodiac including a rabbit, an ox and a horse. The symbolic meanings of the rabbit are closely related to its living habits - vigilance, caution, deftness, self-protection. Similarly, the ox is a symbol for diligence, persistence and honesty whilst the horse represents faithfulness, speed, nobleness, and the inability to be conquered.
Knowing the symbolic meaning of a particular animal, whether real or mythical, can provide an insight into the hidden messages included within different types of Chinese furniture. Here we have chosen a few examples from our current collection of Chinese antiques to pick out some of the most common motifs.
The Chinese dragon is a symbol for good fortune but also for power and positive energy (‘chi’). It was closely associated with the emperors of China, who claimed they were the sons of dragons and whose official robes would incorporate dragon patterns. A strict protocol applied to the use of dragon motifs, with only the emperor allowed to wear a five clawed dragon and lower ranking generals or officials able to wear dragons with four or fewer claws.
You will often see dragon motifs incorporated into furniture as carvings on the apron or spandrels of a table, or as stylised paintings on a lacquered cabinet. In each case this indicates that the person who commissioned the item would have been of considerable rank and wealth.
The impressive altar table shown above, from Shanxi in central China, is a nice example, with the spandrels beautifully decorated with open carvings showing scrolling dragons.
The phoenix is the mythical bird to reign over all others. Originally there were distinct males (feng) and females (huang) but over time the two sexes blurred into a single female entity, with the phoenix now being paired with the male Chinese dragon as the ultimate symbol of a harmonious marriage.
Separately, the phoenix is a symbol for opportunity and good fortune, as well as for virtue, and is thought of as a benevolent presence. It is made up from the parts of other birds, including the head of a pheasant, body of a duck, legs of a crane, tail of a peacock and beak of a parrot and is in the five fundamental colours of black, white, red, yellow and green.
In our current collection you can see the phoenix painted on two of these beautiful wedding boxes, which are from Hebei province and would have been presented by a mother as a gift on her daughter’s wedding day.
Due to the large numbers of homophones in Chinese, there are many animals that have become associated with a different concept as the two words sound similar when spoken. The spoken sound ‘yu’ in Chinese can mean both fish and abundance (each made up of different written characters) and so over time the fish came to represent wealth and affluence. It was also a sign of rank, acting as a pass to enter the imperial court.
The bat as a symbol represents fortune and happiness. It stems from another homophone, as the Chinese for bat (‘fu’) sounds exactly the same as the word for good luck. Bats are often seen either as carvings, for example on the backrests of chairs, or incorporated into the painted decoration on cabinets. They are sometimes grouped in sets of five, representing the ‘Five Blessings’ of long life, wealth, health, love of virtue and a peaceful death.
The crane or heron is a symbol for long life, its white feathers standing for old age. As it was also regarded as a bird of the first rank in the imperial court, it also represents high status. It was incorporated into the rank badges of the first and second class mandarin officials in the Qing dynasty and you can see representations of these in some our ancestor paintings. Cranes also frequently featured in Chinese art and sometimes in the paintings that decorate Chinese furniture.
You might have seen these ferocious looking, lion-like creatures carved in stone and placed in pairs outside restaurants and other buildings in China. They originate from the spread of Buddhism in China and were used as early as the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), placed at the entrance to imperial palaces, temples or the homes of the wealthy. They are believed to be mythical guardians, providing protection and against evil and any negative influence. Always in displayed in pairs, with a male and female either side of an entrance, our small, stone versions are great for decoration or as book ends.
Tigers, similarly to lions, were thought to provide protection and to ward off evil spirits. They are often incorporated into furniture particularly from around Qinghai and Tibet, such as this pair of tiger chests – made to look ferocious to scare off unwanted intruders.
To the Chinese the butterfly represents long life but also beauty and elegance. Specifically, it is also a symbol for happiness within a marriage and as such can often be seen in the wonderful painted furniture that was given to a newlywed couple as part of the bride’s dowry or as a wedding gift, particularly the red or black lacquer wedding cabinets from Shanxi province.