Symbolism in Chinese furniture

Engravings of animals, flowers and other things are not only used to add beauty to Chinese furniture; they are symbols believed to have the power to bestow blessings like bringing financial success, marital happiness and good health, as well as to ward off evil influences such as demons and disease.  If you believe in the ancient Chinese ways, purchasing a beautiful piece of antique Chinese furniture does much more than bring a stunning and useful addition into your home; it enhances your life!

Artemisia – This aromatic plant or its likeness or symbol is found hanging over doors in China to ward off evil and disease. The plant is so valued that it is regarded as one of the ‘Eight Precious Things’. 

Badger and Magpie – When these animals appear together they symbolise happiness.

Bamboo – Often depicted with pine trees and wild cherry trees, the bamboo is a symbol of longevity and is one of the ‘Three Friends of Winter’.

Bat – This creature, so often feared in Western culture, is a symbol of good fortune in China. The Wu Fu are the Five Bats of Happiness and stand for five blessings:  a long life, wealth, health, love and a natural death.  When the bat is pictured upside down, as it often is, it means that good fortune has arrived. 

Bear – This strong, fearsome mammal usually symbolises man.

Butterfly – This delicate creature is a harbinger of good news.  When it appears with plum blossoms it means long life and beauty; when it is depicted with a cat, it represents a wish for a long life.

Carp – This fish symbolises profitable business.  Sometimes the carp is pictured with a dragon, illustrating an old Chinese saying, ‘carp jumping over the dragon gate’, which is used to describe a man who attains a high official position. The dragon gate represents the door to the court.  Today this expression is used to congratulate or compliment someone with talent and to wish them all the best for the future.

Cat – Because of their excellent vision, cats are said to be able to see spirits in the dark.  The cat is the protector of silkworms – a very important role in silk-producing China – and is also believed to ward off evil spirits.

Chrysanthemum – The emblem of autumn and a symbol of joy, the chrysanthemum is a symbol of long life or duration. This flower is one of the symbols representing the four seasons; the others are plum, peony and lotus.

Cicada – The cicada represents life after death or immortality.

Cockerel – The cock protects against bad astral influences and its loud crowing is said to frighten ghosts away at sunrise. A cock also represents achievement and fame.

Crane – The immortals are said to have two modes of flight – they use cranes as steeds and fly on clouds.  The crane is also believed to carry the souls of the dead to the Western Heaven.  The crane is a symbol of longevity and superhuman wisdom, and when shown flying into the sky, it symbolises a rise in status.

Cricket – The sturdy little cricket represents a fighting spirit.

Deer – The God of Longevity is usually shown mounted on a stag or standing by his side, which is appropriate because the deer is said to be the only animal that is able to find the sacred fungus of immortality.

Double-gourd – The double-gourd represents heaven and earth, while scrolling double-gourds, bats and the character ‘shou’ proclaim a wish for longevity and for many sons.

Dove – While in the West the dove is a symbol of peace, in China it represents fidelity and longevity.

Dragon – The Emperors from the Han Dynasty took the dragon as their imperial emblem; their coat of arms featured two dragons fighting over a fiery pearl.  During the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, it is said that five-clawed dragons were only allowed to appear on decorations for imperial use.  Today, some dragons from this time may be found with a fifth claw missing; the claw has been carefully removed, thereby downgrading the piece’s worth, perhaps because it had been stolen from the palace.  A four-clawed dragon indicates a prince; a dragon with three or fewer claws represents an official.

Duck – Pairs of Mandarin ducks swimming amongst water plants is a very popular design featuring on 14th century white and blue Chinese porcelain.  The ducks are a symbol of marital fidelity.

Eagle – This powerful, majestic creature represents strength.

Elephant – The elephant, with its impressive size, symbolises high moral standards as well as strength and shrewdness.

Endless knot – The endless knot represents a long life without setbacks.

Fish – Fish are a symbol of wealth.  A pair of fish symbolises marital bliss and fertility.

Fisherman – Along with the woodcutter, the peasant and the scholar, the fisherman symbolises one of the four basic occupations.

Goose – The goose symbolises a joyful marriage.

Horse -  Horses represent speed and perseverance.   The legend of the eight horses of My Wang is often used as a decorative motif.

Lion – The king of beasts is a symbol of superhuman strength and are protectors and steeds of holy beings.  Also known as ‘Dogs of Fu’ or ‘Fu Dogs,’ they represent valour and energy.  Fu Dogs are often seen in pairs, with each of the couple holding something between or with their front paws. The male lays his paw on a ball, a pearl or an egg enclosing a cub.  (The ball represents the law.) The female has a small cub at her feet, which is often shown biting the mother’s tongue.

Lotus – The lotus is the symbol of summer and fruitfulness and is one of the Eight Treasures of Buddhism.  It represents purity and perfection.

Monkey – The monkey is often seen holding a peach, the fruit that gives immortality, which it stole from the garden of Xi-Wang-Mu.   Even though capable of stealing fruit, the monkey is a good creature and has the power to drive away evil spirits.

Onion – This many-layered root vegetable represents cleverness.

Ox/Water Buffalo – This beast represents the coming of spring.

Panda – Though not as overtly masculine as the brown or black bear, the panda is also used to represent Man.

Peach – The Chinese believe that it was the peach that gave immortality to the Immortals; the peach was therefore the elixir of life to the Taoists.  It is used as a symbol for marriage, spring and immortality and is known as the ‘fairy fruit’.  The peach tree of the Gods was said to blossom once every 3000 years and the fruit of eternal life took another 3000 years to ripen.

Peacock – This spectacular bird is an emblem of beauty and dignity. The peacock’s colorful tail feathers were used from the time of the Ming dynasty to show official rank.

Pearl – The pearl is said to be the solid essence of the moon.  It is also used to represent genius in obscurity, beauty and purity.

Peony – This is the king of flowers and an omen of good fortune as well as a sign of spring.  This flower is an emblem of love, affection and feminine beauty.

Pheasant – The pheasant was used as an imperial symbol of authority and office.

Phoenix – The phoenix, the emblem of the Empress and of beauty, only appears in times of peace and prosperity.  It ranks second among the four supernatural creatures, behind the dragon but ahead of the unicorn and the tortoise.  A train of small birds is always in attendance when the phoenix flies.

Pomegranate – This many-seeded fruit symbolises fertility and numerous male ancestors.

Quail – Because of the quail’s aggressive nature, it symbolises courage.

Sheep – This animal sometimes symbolises the male principle or Yang.

Snake – The snake represents cunning, evil and supernatural powers, and is sometimes used to represent Woman.

Three-legged Toad – This odd creature exists only on the moon, which it swallows during the eclipse.  That said, immortal Liu Hai is said to have possessed a three-legged toad, which is a symbol of the unattainable.

Tiger – The tiger represents strength and military might.

Tortoise – This long-living creature represents longevity and immortality.

Willow – This graceful tree is used as the Buddhist symbol of meekness.  It is also a sign of spring and is believed to have the power to expel demons.

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