Before words, humans relied on symbols to express their thoughts and emotions. As the world evolved, symbols became iconic representations. It was a way to convey a message without words, and could be interpreted in a broader sense than with words alone. Most symbols today have long histories dating back to its cultural origins, many of them derived from superstition, legend or beliefs. Other symbols have become universal, a necessity resulting from the world’s existing six thousand languages.
Our customers may have noticed reoccurring designs or motifs while browsing through our website. Perhaps it’s the adorable Maneki Neko dolls, or spiritual Daruma symbol on a pair of chopsticks, or even the depiction of the twelve Chinese zodiac animals on a hanging Noren. From its descriptions, you may have learned why each symbol is of significant importance to the Asian culture, but what about the more subtle designs that seem decoratively random? Are they merely background embellishments?
In Asian symbolism, everything is of significance, whether it’s the dragonfly found on the Black Dragonfly Lacquerware Tray or the peony design on the Violet Peony eglomise Ornament. Even the bamboo, one of China’s most important natural products, has several symbolical meanings, since each part of the bamboo represent several things. Young bamboo shoots denote youth, while its drooping leaves is believed to be equivalent to an empty heart. To the Chinese, an empty heart signifies modesty, and thus, a bamboo’s drooping leaves represents virtue. Its gaunt stalk is not unlike that of an old person and is regarded as a symbol for old age. Other trees, such as the pine, often appear in Chinese art as homage to its real life resilience. Because of its natural ability to withstand the cold and not lose its needles, it symbolizes longevity and determination. Pine trees and cedar trees are considered ranked higher than other trees and are regarded as the epitome of self-discipline.
In many cultures, the use of flowers as expressions of human sentiment is quite common, as is the use of flowers as religious and national symbols. For the Chinese, flowers are a symbol of beauty. The popular chrysanthemum is considered a noble plant symbolizing long life and duration, while plum blossoms embody beauty, long life and courage. However, it is the revered peony, particularly the red peony, that is known as the Queen of Flowers, symbolizing wealth, distinction, and youth. For the Japanese, though, it is the highly regarded cherry blossom which symbolizes beauty, fleeting as it may be. Their other highly prized flower, the morning glory or asagao, is associated with the rising sun. Both cultures are unified when it comes to the lotus as a sacred flower representing purity and enlightenment.
In the land of mythical creatures, nothing can compare to the majestic dragon. Celebrated as one of the more familiar and complex of Asian symbols, it is not uncommon to find the dragon paired with other creatures, particularly the phoenix. In Chinese mythology, it is believed the dragon represents the Emperor and the phoenix represents the Empress. The dragon symbolizes power, protection and vigilance, while the phoenix embodies virtue, grace, power and prosperity. When presented together at a traditional Chinese wedding reception, these two symbols represent man and wife and wedded bliss. In Japanese mythology, the phoenix is said to appear only during peaceful and prosperous times, and in modern times, has been adopted by the royal family as a symbolic representation of the sun, justice, obedience and fidelity.
Another familiar symbol is the Yin Yang. This Far East representation shows how opposites complement one another. The Yin is female, dark, earth, moon, passiveness and receptive, while the Yang is male, light, heaven, sun, aggressive and vigor. While their color and position may differ, you may notice that both sides are balanced. The balance is disturbed when a person experiences excess in parts of his life and deficiencies in others.
Avian members such as the crane and peacock have a particular symbolic significance, as well. The crane, often depicted as soaring, symbolizes longevity and wisdom, while the magnificent peacock embodies dignity and beauty. As is the case with trees, there is a particular significance attached to certain birds, such as the quail and rooster. The quail symbolizes courage, while the rooster, one of the twelve Chinese zodiac animals, represents reliability. Butterflies are sometimes shown fluttering among soaring birds, and it is their lovely images that symbolize joy, long life, and immaculate beauty. If you find butterflies among plum blossoms, it is a symbol of beauty and long life. If you find them wavering among cats, it represents the wish to live to be 70 or 80 years old.
Combining symbols does not alter a symbol’s significance, although its overall meaning may vary slightly. Such is the case with the water buffalo or ox, a beast of burden that helps harvest farmers’ crops. Alone, its physical power represents strength and dedication, but when combined with a child, it shows how obedient this strong creature can be. A favorite motif in Asian artwork and other products, such as our A Child and His Water Buffalo Yixing teapot, is of a small boy riding on a water buffalo. Another combination is that of a cat and fish, particularly a carp, much like our Maneki Neko with Lucky Catch. The cat is regarded by the Chinese and Japanese as a symbol of longevity and good fortune, while fish symbolize wealth and harmony. The carp is also a symbolic portrayal of perseverance and bravery.
The use of color can is in itself a demonstration of symbolism. Red has always been a lucky color in the Asian culture, believed to symbolize happiness, marriage or prosperity. Purple has long been associated with wealth and for those seeking health, peace and harmony, green is a good color to surround oneself with. When mourning, Asians wear white, and when they want to guard themselves against evil, they rely on the color yellow.
It has been said that in order to gain insight into a culture, it helps to explore the aspects of that culture. Many might consider symbols as just another form of communication in this ever growing multi-lingual world of ours, but by delving deeper, you’ll find that symbols are more than mere artistic representations. The next time you browse Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen, you may begin to notice details you might have overlooked in the past. These details are your link to our culture’s history and beliefs, and we’re more than happy to be able to share them with you.
OUR 2007 NEWSLETTERS
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Holiday Gift: The 2007 Way
The Enlightening Truth
Noodles: Asian Fast Food
Weddings and Marriage in Japan
Bento: The Japanese Lunchbox
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