Symbolism plays an important role in the folklore of many societies, with certain objects or species being endowed with protective or propitious properties.
It is especially important to the Chinese, particularly in centuries past, as they believed bad spirits were in the air all around, ready to pounce on the unprotected. Consequently everything used or worn was decorated with auspicious symbols designed to ward off these evil influences. Thus every item of clothing, every piece of furniture, every vase, bowl or ornament was covered with lucky emblems.
Chinese language is phonetic and many things are symbolic because phonetically the word sounds the same as something thought to be lucky. So these flowers, trees, animals, birds and creatures were used as decorative motifs on items round the home. Clothing was embroidered with lucky emblems of flowers, bats and butterflies, while furniture was carved with bamboo, dragons and cranes. Books about Chinese symbolism cover the hundreds of symbols still in use today.
Auspicious Flowers and Trees – Bamboo, Lotus, Peony, Peach
Bamboo, an evergreen, is a symbol of longevity. Since it grows straight but bends, it is also sign of an honest and adaptable official. Together with plum blossom, chrysanthemum and orchid, they form the group The Four Noble Plants.
Lotus flower is a symbol of purity, fruitfulness, perfection. An important motif in Chinese art and one of the eight emblems of Buddhism, it is the emblem of redemption and purity: it grows out of mud but its blossom is undefiled.
Peach and peach blossom are very popular emblems in China. The blossom is a symbol of spring, emblem of marriage, symbol of immortality, while the peach is an emblem of longevity.
Peony signifies wealth and distinction, thus it was a favorite of the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi. It also symbolizes love and affection.
Pine is another longevity symbol being an evergreen, as well as steadfastness and self-discipline. Together with bamboo and plum blossom, they form the “Three Friends in Winter,” symbolizing loyal companions in times of stress.
Plum blossom symbolizes winter and beauty. It also represents long life because the blossom appears first on leafless branches.
Pomegranate, because of its many seeds, symbolizes abundance and the desire for many sons, while the sacred fungus, lingzhi, stands for eternal life and is another symbol of longevity.
Lucky Creatures – Bat, Crane, Dragon, Phoenix
The bat is very popular in Chinese symbolism because the sound of the word for bat, fu, is the same as that for happiness. Five bats shown together stood for health, wealth, happiness, long life and virtue.
The butterfly is an old and very common symbol for great age because the name die also sounds like the word for seventy or eighty years of age.
Cats have the ability to see in the dark, hence they can spot evil lurking. Phonetically the word for cat, mao, and that for octogenarian are similar so depicts a wish for longevity.
The crane is another longevity emblem as the bird is said to live for two thousand years, and it is often shown in combination with other such symbols. The bird flying or looking up towards the sun is a desire to rise high in the government hierarchy.
Deer is another homonym, lu, which also sounds like an official’s salary, hence a sign of wealth and achievement.
The dragon is a benevolent creature, and an emblem of imperial authority. The five-clawed longdragon was reserved for emperor and members of his immediate family. The four-clawed mang dragon was used by lesser nobles and those who had had the honor conferred upon them by the emperor. It is also used in connection with marriage as it is a symbol of male vigor and fertility.
Fish, yu, is phonetically the same as abundance or plenty, therefore a fish is the emblem of wealth and superfluity.
The Five Poisons or Five Evil Creatures consist of the snake, three-legged toad, scorpion, spider and centipede. They are often shown together as a talisman to ward off evil.
The mandarin duck is often shown in pairs as the male and female birds mate for life. They stand for marital fidelity and happiness, as, if separated, the birds will pine away and die.
A Phoenix is an ancient figure signifying goodness and benevolence. The bird is also a symbol of high achievement as it can fly the highest to heaven. Traditionally associated with the Empress it is also used together with the dragon on marriage to symbolize the bride.
These symbols were especially important in past dynasties when life on the land was uncertain. Even today however, most Chinese believe in the good fortune brought by these animals, birds, flowers and fruit.