The association between various animals and their related qualities and connotations, have long played a major role in Chinese culture, impacting everything from art and language, to folk stories and the affectionate nicknames given to children by their parents (known as xiǎo míng). While animal motifs appear frequently in the art of many cultures, animal depictions for aesthetic purposes alone are particularly rare in Chinese art, with the vast majority of animals in paintings, and on ceramics and textiles, carrying some form of deeper meaning.
Much as is believed of swans in Western culture, mandarin ducks, found throughout East Asia, are thought to form lifelong partnerships, in contrast to many similar species. It is unsurprising then, that mandarin ducks have long been used as a symbol of fidelity and marital happiness and affection in Chinese art, as well as in the art of other East Asian countries. Chinese art depicting mandarin ducks was commonly presented as wedding gifts and even today, many weddings feature decorations displaying the ‘double happiness’ symbol alongside a pair of mandarin ducks.
The crane was an extremely popular symbol in Chinese art, thought to represent longevity and high rank. Its associations made it a favoured motif for the rank badges (also known as mandarin squares) displayed on the clothing of high-ranking officials to signify their status within the court, which had been in use since the Yuan dynasty (1260-1368 AD) but saw greater prevalence from the Ming dynasty onwards. Though artworks depicting cranes would have often been used to assert or celebrate an individuals’ status and position, the image of the crane as a symbol of longevity gave them the popular appeal to appear as a common motif across all manner of Chinese art.
The fish was a many-faceted symbol in Chinese art and society. Associated with wealth due to the similarity between the word for ‘fish’ and that for ‘affluence or abundance’, the fish was not only a general symbol of success but was also used to signify the entry rank for court officials. During the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), many officials of this fifth rank would display fish ornaments in order to highlight their position. In addition to their relation to abundance in the form of wealth, the fish was also sometimes intended as a subtle fertility symbol as it can be used to imply an abundance of children.
Often paired with the dragon to symbolise the pairing of emperor and empress, the combination of the two reflect a perfect marriage. Alone it can symbolise peace, spiritual balance, virtue and the harmonious unity of yin and yang. Although it is commonly called a ‘phoenix’ in English, the Chinese phoenix is not, in fact, the same as the concept of a phoenix in the West, and its immortal status removes it from Western connotations of rebirth attached to the phoenix. Also known as fenghuang, the Chinese phoenix is usually considered a composition of various birds, with older interpretations sometimes including parts of snakes and tortoises in its overall image, and consequently, depictions can vary considerably.
Perhaps the most recognisable and auspicious of Chinese animal symbols, the dragon first and foremost represented the emperor and artwork featuring a dragon motif is likely to have imperial links, either by merit of imperial commission or production. Though the dragon does indeed represent power, authority and high rank, it is viewed in a positive sense as a symbol of good fortune, benevolence and abundance – qualities it was no doubt believed, or at least hoped, that the emperor himself would embody.