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Chinese Ceramics

Fact Sheet:

Symbols in Chinese Art

What is a symbol?

A symbol is a picture that means something or stands for something else. For example, on U.S. coins you might see a bald eagle, which symbolizes the strength of the American people, and beneath it an olive branch, which stands for peace. By looking at symbols people use, we can tell what they valued.

What do Chinese symbols mean?

The dragons, deer, and birds you see on Chinese ceramics are more than decorations. They also contain meanings the Chinese have used and understood for thousands of years. Most of the designs are taken from nature, such as plants, animals, mountains, and clouds. They often stand for good fortune, happiness, and human virtues such as loyalty, love of family, and wisdom.

Some symbols mean what they do because the Chinese considered particular animals, plants, and objects to have certain qualities. Turtles, for example, live for a long time, so a painting of a turtle on a plate might stand for a wish of long life for the plate's owner. The plate could be a porcelain birthday card, offering wishes for the long life of the recipient.

The fish stands for wealth because fish lay many eggs and have many children. They sometimes live in large schools—but the Chinese word for fish (yu) has the same sound as the word for abundance (yu). The gift of a bowl with a fish on it at New Year's might stand for a wish for wealth in the coming year.

Some special symbols in Chinese art

The qilin (chee-lin) is a legendary beast that looks like a deer and is sometimes compared to the Western unicorn. It has the body of a deer, the tail of a cow, and the hoofs of a horse. Although it looks fierce, it never hurts humans or animals. It even floats above ground so that it does not accidentally kill insects or small animals. The qilin brings good luck to the empire.

The dragon is one of the most popular images in Chinese art. The dragon is not an evil creature in Chinese mythology and symbolism, but one that can protect from evil if treated with respect. It stands for the heavens and the Emperor, who is considered to be the son of heaven and the link between Heaven and Earth.

The four kinds of dragons:
heaven dragons—powers of heaven
spirit dragons—control rain
earth dragons—power over springs and rivers
dragons that guard treasure

Dragon claws:
five-clawed dragons are on objects for exclusive use of the emperor
      and his family
four-clawed for a prince
three-clawed for an official

yellow—for the emperor, considered the color of heaven
red—luckiest color
black—indicated high status

Other symbols

bamboo—scholarship, flexibility
bats—good luck and happiness
children (mostly boys)—a wish for male offspring/continuing family
clouds—good fortune and happiness
crane—long life
deer—long life
ducks (pair)—marital fidelity
horse—speed and perseverance
jade—permanence and purity
mountains—cosmic order and permanence
orchid—purity and loyalty
peach—gives immortality, emblem of marriage and spring
pearl—moon, charm against fire, purity
peony—good fortune, feminine beauty
pine tree—survival in a harsh environment, old age
rainbow—emblem of marriage


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Updated 2/12/2001 USC Pacific Asia Museum  Copyright&Credits