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Symbols of Happiness and Longevity in Asian Culture - April 2005 Newsletter


As you look at our products, you will see a variety of repeated images. From animals to geometric patterns, each icon has a special meaning. This month, we will continue to look at the symbolism behind these patterns and textures and what they mean to Asian cultures. Many of the icons have been used for thousands of years as symbols of prosperity, happiness, and good luck. How did these pictures and calligraphy letters come to represent what they do? We will look into a variety of symbols so you can “decode” the images that appear on your everyday kitchen items. Just take a look around your home – your vases, dishes, and even your chopsticks may be wishing you a special wish for luck and happiness!

The idea of happiness is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. Over the centuries, many symbols and colors have become icons for this abstract idea. More than just meaning happiness, they are a wish for happiness too. Let’s take a closer look at four of the harbingers of joy in Chinese culture – the bat, the Fu Dog, the spider, and the double happiness symbol.

In Western cultures, bats are generally feared as creatures of the night. Why is an animal that we associate with ghosts and evil spirits an icon of happiness? The answer lies in the Chinese language. When pronounced, the words for “bat” and “happiness” are the same. Though the calligraphy looks different, the homonym links the bat to the idea of joy. You might find bats on patterned dishes or textiles, or in classical artwork. They are one of the most popular images in Chinese decorative design. The animals are usually stylized and look more elegant and colorful than the typical Halloween variety - they are sometimes mistaken for butterflies! When five bats are shown together, they symbolize the Five Blessings, which are: long life, wealth, health, virtue, and a natural death. The bats may be placed around a central emblem such as a calligraphy letter or flowers for added decorative effect.

The Fu Dog, also known as a Fo Dog or Lion of Buddha, is a popular symbol used throughout Asia to represent happiness. Though the mythical creature looks somewhat like a lion, it is often referred to as a dog because of its friendly nature and reputation as a guardian. You can find Fu Dogs at the entrance to many buildings, including shrines and palaces. In ancient China, people of different political rankings had detailed rules governing the physical appearance of their personal Fu Dog statues. For example, only the emperor’s family could have a Fu Dog with thirteen curls on its back. The tradition of these creatures was passed on to Korea and Japan, where they remain popular among people of all ages. The lions are often displayed in pairs, with a male holding a ball and a female protecting a cub. When carved with open mouths, they scare away evil forces; when they are depicted with closed mouths, they keep in good spirits.

Like bats, the spider has a generally unpleasant reputation in Western culture. Once again, the symbolic meaning for this animal comes through language. The word “hsi” represents a specific type of spider with a red body. Since red is one of the most prized colors in Chinese culture, the red spider is highly regarded. The image of two spiders together represents double happiness. In ancient times, a poet wrote: “When joy [the spider] arrives beneath the eaves, it is always double. ” This encouraging message implies that happiness comes in abundance.

The concept of “double happiness” comes from a wish for an extended period of happiness. When the character “hsi” is doubled, it becomes “shuang hsi” – take a look at the symbol on our Double Happiness Paper Cutting Card Set for an example. Long life is very important to Asian cultures, and a wish for a happy and long life is among the best compliments to bestow on a friend.

“Shou,” the character for longevity, is frequently used on clothing. Children often give the elders in the family gifts with the longevity character as a wish for their health in old age. The symbol is said to enhance positive life energy. We have a nice Longevity Sake Set, which is emblazoned with the “shou” character – don’t forget to honor your parents and grandparents with this special message!

Cats, butterflies, and tortoises are symbols for longevity as well. Cats and butterflies are associated with long life because their pronunciation in Chinese is similar to the idea of “shou.” The word for “cat” is similar to the word for “age of ninety years.” Similarly, “butterfly” sounds like “age of seventy or eighty years.” When you use our Butterfly Chopstick Rest, think of the symbolic meaning behind this elegant animal. Tortoises are known for their long life span, and are therefore linked with wishes for longevity. The tortoise’s shell is decorated with a repeating hexagonal pattern, which also represents longevity and good luck. In ancient Chinese art, icons of longevity are put together to create a powerful and symbolic composition. For instance, a crane standing on the shell of a tortoise is a popular subject. Some fruit trees with long life spans are also treasured for their admirable traits. Images of peaches and pears can be found on decorative items for the home, such as plates and vases. Look at our whimsical Celadon Peach Tea Set.

The Eight Precious Objects are a series of icons that have existed for many centuries. Though some of these icons have lost their specific meaning over time, they now act as a general charm for good luck and fortune. They appear in Buddhist temples on the sole of Buddha’s foot or in decorative designs for the home. The eight symbols are: the wheel of the Law, conch shell, canopy, lotus, covered jar, fish, mystic knot, and umbrella. Let’s take a closer look at the wheel of the Law, the mystic knot, and the fish.

Buddhist philosophy uses the wheel of the Law to explain many teachings of the Buddha. The wheel can crush old superstitions and delusions with its power, or it can bring enlightenment as a sun-like icon. It helps to explain the organization of Buddhist teaching and beliefs, and its circular form embodies the idea of an existence without beginning or end. In modern Asian design, wheel shapes are used for repeat patterns on fabric, chopsticks, kitchen goods. You can see the spokes in the wheel, but the image is abstract and geometric.

The mystic knot is also important to Buddhist philosophy. It represents longevity because it twists around in an endless circuit. The knot has been compared to entrails or intestines, which symbolically receive and distribute abundance within the body. If you enjoy this pattern, you might also like Chinese knots made out of cord (see our Zodiac Keychains for an example). They can help remind you that everything in life is interconnected.

Fish represent wealth in Chinese culture, and their importance in society is well documented in beautiful decorative items. From goldfish to carp, each variety denotes a special symbolism. Why are they so important? First, they are one of the staple foods in China. The country’s extensive coast and long, ranging rivers make fishing convenient and profitable. The word for “fish” sounds similar to the word “superfluous” when spoken, and indeed, there is an abundance of fish in Asian territories. People also prize these animals because they seem to be free from restraints as they swim in the water. During wedding gift exchanges, people often give the bride’s family presents decorated with fish. In this context, the fish symbolizes happiness in one’s surroundings. It is a wish for the bride’s new life and home.

While we have only covered a few of the many symbols in Chinese culture, we hope you have gained a better understanding of the importance of visual design. Even everyday objects can hold a wealth of meaning, and we believe the more you know about Asian culture, the more you will enjoy the products we offer.


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Double Happiness Jewelry Box(5168)
Jade Zodiac Dragon Lucky Charm(5556)

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