Ancient artifacts and modern works alike show great deference to Chinese history. Art and antiques almost always refer to historical symbols or philosophy. To collect Chinese art, one must first understand the references that exist in each piece.
The meanings behind these recurring elements have withstood the test of time and appear frequently in paintings, ceramics, sculptures, and garments. Below is a short list of imagery to look out for:
- Dragons are used to represent ultimate power and high rank.
- Longevity is often displayed with a circular, abstract butterfly-like pattern.
- Peaches are very commonly depicted in Chinese art, and are representative of immortality.
- Amber is used as a symbol of courage, once believed to be the manifestation of a deceased tiger soul.
- Lotus flowers often reference the Buddhist tradition, in which they are symbols of purity.
- Peonies are regarded as symbols of wealth and virtue.
- Fish are symbols of wealth as the Chinese word is a homonym for the word for “abundance.”
- Lions or Foo Dogs make appearances in Chinese art as guardians of the household.
- The Phoenix, which is believed to never harm living creatures and only appears during times of peace, is the symbol of benevolence and of a perfect marriage between emperor and empress when paired with the dragon.
Chinese philosophy, characterized by the importance of individual good deeds to achieve greatness, is often described in calligraphy, painting, and illustration. Confucianism heavily focuses on the individual’s familial duty. This philosophy has been passed on to modern times, so depictions of family are particularly common in Chinese art. The reverence towards teachers and learning also led to many depictions of Confucius in Chinese paintings.
Doing good deeds in order to attain transcendence gave birth to philosophies such as I-Ching and Taoism. Taoism, well known by the iconic yin yang symbol, is particularly present in ink paintings. Taoism is characterized by the belief in the unification of opposites such that one element is necessary for the other, and when one element becomes the strongest, it subverts itself to its opposite.
Taoism’s emphasis on opposite forces is frequently illustrated in art through symbolism such as one black and one white fish swimming around each other, and the juxtaposition of the dragon and phoenix. The two are very different in temperament, but symbolic of the perfect marriage. The implied balance of dark versus light, nature versus civilization, and reality versus perception are also examples of oppositions that reflect this philosophy.
Pair of Buddha Figures from Nepal or Tibet, bronze, 19th century, 15.5 x 10 x 8 in.
Tibetan Buddhism, which made its way over to China in the 2nd century A.D. during the Yuan Dynasty, is a very important genre of Chinese art. Like Confucianism, there is a strong reverence to the teacher. The Buddha motif is manifest in paintings, vessels, and sculptures. Often, Buddhism is represented by a symbol – as a wheel of dharma, victory banner, conch shell, lotus flower, parasol, treasure vase, pair of fish, or an endless knot. Sculptures of Buddha and affiliated deities, as well as paintings and tapestries, are used as domestic decorations to bring peace and blessings to a dwelling.