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Rebus Key: Symbols in Chinese Art

Bats and Peaches

Plate with eight peaches and five bats, one of a pair, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795). Jingdezhen, China. Porcelain with overglaze polychrome decoration. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60P1707

Motifs for Blessings

  1. The character for blessings (fu)
  2. Bat, also pronounced fu, is therefore a symbol for blessings. Bats shown upside down = Blessings have arrived!
  3. Bats + coins = blessings before your eyes (Ancient Chinese coins have an opening called an “eye.”)
  4. Bat + swastika = (The Indian swastika, which is a sacred symbol, came to China along with Buddhism; ten thousand blessings (swastika and ten thousand are both pronounced wan.)
  5. Five bats surrounding the character for longevity (shou) = May you be granted longevity and the Five Blessings! (The Five Blessings are longevity, wealth, health, love of virtue, and a peaceful death.)
  6. Red bats in the sky = May your blessings be as vast as the sky! (Red and vast are both pronounced hong.)
  7. Buddha’s-hand citron (fo shou) = blessings and longevity (fu shou)

Marriage and Children: Motifs for Happy Marriage and Quick Arrival Of Sons

  1. The character for happiness (xi) shown twice = double happiness (a symbol for weddings)
  2. Lotus (pronounced he; a wedding motif) + box (also he) + lingzhi fungus (a symbol for longevity and for “as you wish”) = May you have a harmonious marriage and may your wishes come true!
  3. Mandarin ducks (thought to mate for life) + lotus = May you be paired for life!
  4. Large gourds (pronounced gua) + small gourds (pronounced die) = numerous descendants (guadie mianmian)
  5. Butterfly (also pronounced die) + pumpkin/melon/squash (same family as gourds) = numerous descendants
  6. Dates (pronounced zao, the same sound as for early) + peanuts (the peanut plant has many seeds) = early arrival of sons
  7. Pomegranate (by virtue of its many seeds) = numerous sons

Rank and Prosperity: Motifs for Wealth

  1. Deer (lu) = wealth and rank (also pronounced lu). Deer (thought to live long) also symbolize longevity.
  2. Peony (fugui hua), the flower of wealth and rank
  3. White magnolia (yulan) + crabapple (haitang) + peony (fugui hua) = yutang fugui (a popular phrase for “wealth and rank”)
  4. Lithophone (a stone chime, pronounced qing) + two fish (yu) = celebration and plenty/abundance (jiqing youyu)
  5. Golden ingots or coins, obvious symbols for riches
  6. Fish (pronounced yu) + lotus leaf (pronounced he ye or lian ye) = May there be an abundance year after year! (liannian youyu, a southern Chinese expression) / May you have an abundance of gold in your purse! (hebao jinyu, a northern Chinese expression)

Motifs for Passing Civil Service Examinations and Rising In Rank

  1. Carp leaping the Dragon Gate rapids and turning into a dragon (symbolizing a poor scholar leaping the hurdle of his exams and becoming an official) = May you pass your exams with honors!
  2. Two crabs (erjia) with stalks of reeds (lu) = May you pass your exams with high honors! (erjia chuanlu)
  3. Three circles (sanyuan) = May you come first in each of the three examinations! (lianzhong sanyuan)
  4. Rising sun = May you rise in rank!
  5. Boy shooting at three oranges (which are circular) = May you come first in each of the three examinations! (lianzhong sanyuan)
  6. Rooster (pronounced jiguan) + cockscomb (jiguan hua) = May you rise in rank! (guanshang jiaguan)
  7. Monkey (pronounced hou) riding on a horse (pronounced ma) + (or without) a wasp (pronounced feng) = May you immediately be elevated to the rank of marquis! (mashang fengho

Motifs and Symbols for Longevity

  1. Character for longevity (shou)
  2. Lingzhi fungus, a symbol for longevity and for “as you wish”
  3. Peach, a symbol for longevity.
  4. Bat (pronounced fu) + peaches = May you have blessings and longevity!
  5. Peony (flower of wealth and rank) + cat (symbolizing age 70) + butterfly (symbolizing age 80) = May you live long and prosper!
  6. Rocks + peach tree (representing the Southern Mountain) with sea + bats (representing the Eastern Sea) = May your blessings be as deep as the Eastern Sea, and may you live to be as old as the Southern Mountain! (a traditional birthday wish)
  7. Crane + pine tree (both believed to have long lives) = May you live long!
  8. Attributes of the Eight Taoist Immortals (fan, gourd and iron crutch, fish drum [bamboo tube and iron rods], lotus, basket, sword and fly whisk, wood clappers, flute) = May the Eight Immortals grant you longevity!

Other Auspicious Motifs

  1. Wish-granting wand (ruyi) = as you wish
  2. Catfish (nianyu) + lingzhi fungus (a symbol for longevity and for “as you wish”) = May your wishes come true year after year! (niannian youyu)
  3. Lithophone (stone chime, pronounced qing) = great celebration (also pronounced qing)
  4. Magpie (xi), the bird of happiness, on a plum tree (mei) = Happiness up to your eyebrows! (xishang meishao)
  5. Quail (an)and millet (sui) = May you have peace year after year! (suisui ping’an)
  6. Peach + pomegranate + Buddha’s-hand citron (known as the Three Abundances) = May you have an abundance of sons, blessings, and longevity!