What a timing - look what I found yesterday at one of my favorites "junk" haunts in Singapore, just before I'm having a lecture of symbolism in Chinese art tomorrow on my course at the museum...
Even more coincidentally, the lecture will be given by Patricia Bjaaland Welch, whose treasure trove of a book "Chinese Art - A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery" I've often used during the last year to decode my surroundings here in Singapore, from artifacts and imagery in Buddhist temples to decorative motifs on furniture and paintings to porcelain.
Covered with dust, worm spilling and spider webs, I found this little wood carving on the bottom of a cardboard box under many similar ones, though none of them was as lively and skillfully carved. Made of dark wood, it is painted with red, with gilded details that are now almost worn out. Originally, it probably was a part of a cabinet, window shutter, or even door in a Chinese home, that has now probably been demolished and replaced by something more modern.
Dusting off the surface to reveal the carved fruits, a fluttering butterfly and an musical instrument between, I suspected that there would be some "higher meaning" that I wasn't able to understand, but felt excited to decipher as soon as I got home to my books. And my intuition was well rewarded, as the carving had a much more lovely message than I would have imagined. Let's take a closer look....
A golden pumpkin with leafs and tendrils, a cheeky little butterfly (I love the smile on its face!), and a character reading 'shou'...
Typically, the motifs and designs in Chinese art and crafts are seldom chosen only to be decorative, but because of the meaning they convey. To make things more layered, a design or motif can have several meanings depending on how it is depicted or what other motifs it is combined with, much like the Chinese characters of writing that can be read in several ways depending on the context. Verbal 'puns' are also typical - the Chinese language is full of homonyms, words pronounced the same than another, but with completely different meaning (and often spelling). So, just to mention of the most common and loved ones, "fu" that means both "bat" and "good wishes", so a depiction of a bat has become a symbol for "good luck". So how does any of this apply to my carving?
Despite its small size (only 14x40 cm), it is loaded with symbolism that Chinese viewers would have understood in the olden days. Starting from the left and proceeding to right, the first motif in the carving is a pumpkin, accompanied by a happy little butterfly and adorned by an almost stamp-like Chinese character dangling by the feet of the butterfly. Naturally, the butterfly could just be happy to see the pumpkin, but for the Chinese, fruits and vegetables that grow on vines and have many seeds (like the gourds, cucumbers and melons) are associated with fertility.
The leaves and tendrils around it, known as wan in Chinese, is also a homonym with wan meaning "10,000", which makes the depiction even more auspicious, adding an expression of "many" to the wish of fertility. The butterfly - hudie - is also a homonym with die, meaning "repeatedly" or "again and again" So combined with the pumpkin here, the butterfly expresses the desire for many births, and for repeated generations of children. And what about the stamp-like Chinese character dangling by the feet of the butterfly? It is the simplified, round form of character shou, representing longevity that can actually be read "live one's full span and die a natural death".
A five-stringed zither with a gracefully flowing ribbon over it, accompanied by a lotus flower peeking from the leaves of the citrus further to the right...
In the middle of the panel, there is a five-stringed musical instrument that reminds of a zither, with a gracefully flowing ribbon over it, and with a lotus flower and a bud peeking from the leaves of the citrus to the right, like they were listening to some music picked from the instrument by an invisible player. Now, in Chinese art, musical instruments often symbolize matrimonial harmony and mutual affection between the husband and wife - not a far-fetched suggestion really when thinking of the melodies provided by their harmonious strings.
Together with the lotus, another symbol for marital harmony, they become the thematical symbol of consistency - and again, in Chinese art, nothing exists in isolation of its surroundings, which means that the overall theme of marital harmony must be the right interpretation of this combination.
The ribbon itself, so common that it often is overlooked purely as a decorative element, of course is not so. Ribbons play an important role in emphasizing the auspicious messages of the motifs surrounding it (or like here, under it). They can also tie them together, accentuating their connected meanings. Ribbon - dai in Chinese - has also two phonetic twins: "to bear, bring along", and "generations", so it adds the joyful wish for successive generations to follow - something that again goes well with the overall theme of the carving.
Two Buddha's hand lemons.
The last motif represents two Buddha's hand lemons, hanging among abundant leaves. These inedible fruit (well, you can candy the peel, but that's about it) are said to resemble the hand position of Buddha while he was meditating. So there is a wink to Buddhism, one of the most important religions in China. Also, there's yet another verbal allusion: the similarity of sounds in fo (Buddha) and fu (happiness), and shou (hand) and shou (longevity - which we already met above in the pumpkin picture), create together the favorable combination of "happiness and longevity".
And if I haven't tired you out yet, I still want to say that the more I learn, the more interesting "decoding" Chinese arts gets. Just look what I found in the dusty cardboard box: not only a old wooden carving, but a beautifully coded message of marital harmony with joyful wishes of many descendants and a happy, well-lived and long life. As Patricia writes in her book, the Chinese love auspicious symbols and have a great belief in that pictures function like "lucky charms", encouraging all the good things they depict. Which means that I need to find a place of honor for this little carving in our home so that it can freely "emit" its happy message around!
Most of the information above was taken from Patricia Bjaaland Welch's book "Chinese Art - A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery". If you have the slightest interest in symbolism in Chinese art, do buy this book, it is a beautifully illustrated source of well-researched information.
PS - Please oversee the western spelling of Chinese words - I do not have the correct programs to write down them correctly.