Have you ever wondered what the recurring patterns in Asian textiles and dishware mean? This month, we will take a closer look at a few icons that are dominant in Eastern cultures. Take a look in your home and find the objects on which karakusa, gingko, and wave patterns appear. You may have sushi trays with gingko leaves, or perhaps a bedspread with a twisting karakusa pattern. These patterns have been used for centuries – what makes them so popular, and what do they represent in Eastern cultures?
The karakusa pattern can be found on fabrics, dishware, and many items for the home. Take a look at our Blue Karakusa Sake Set to see an example. The word translates roughly from Japanese as “winding vine” or “China plant,” and consists of curling lines accented with flowers or leaves. The pattern is based on imagery from ancient Middle Eastern and Greek arabesque prints. Over the course of several centuries, the intricately intertwined pattern made its way across Egypt, Greece, Persia and China. The Japanese were most likely introduced to the style through trade with Chinese merchants – hence the name “China plant.” With each culture, the pattern evolved to fit the aesthetic of the people who used it. For example, the Japanese karakusa incorporates local fauna into the winding curlicues - tiny lotus blossoms and peonies are among the most popular additions. These flowers give an added meaning to the design, as each carries its own cultural symbolism. The lotus is associated with Buddhist philosophy and represents wisdom and purity, while peonies are symbols of prosperity. The winding vine that connects them also represents prosperity because vines grow steadily and are generally hardy plants.
Let’s take a closer look at the main flowers used in Chinese culture. The peony, lotus, chrysanthemum, and wild plum are the symbols of the seasons – spring, summer, autumn, and winter, respectively. These four blossoms each bring a special meaning to the season.
As we mentioned earlier, peonies denote wealth and abundance. They are seen as the King of Flowers, and are prized by gardeners for their vivid colors. Peonies in bloom can represent love and affection, but if the flowers whither and die suddenly, they can foreshadow poverty in the family of the grower. Our Red Peony Plate shows the beautiful texture and striking color that help make this flower a national favorite.
The lotus blossom is another beloved flower. In the Chinese language, the word for lotus also means a variety of other things, including: “to bind,” “connect (in marriage),” and “modesty.” These ideas are all therefore contained within the image of the lotus. Lotuses are large pink or yellow flowers with many petals. They often grow on ponds or lakes, and their roots hang down into the water. Take a look at our Lotus Tea Cup with Infuser to see an example. The plant’s components have a variety of applications: the dried leaves are used for wrapping groceries, while the seeds make a nice dessert. It is also used to make medicine and cosmetics. As noted earlier, the lotus is especially symbolic in Buddhist culture. It grows out of mud, but is entirely pure, and it represents growth and knowledge even in adverse situations. The lotus’ round shape is linked to the wheel of life, which is constantly turning and regenerating our surroundings. It represents summer and life with its bright petals.
Autumn is the season of the chrysanthemum. This plant, which comes in hundreds of varieties and colors, blooms during October and November (see our Chrysanthemum Longevity Table Runner for a picture of this flower). People go out to view the flowers en masse in a festival similar to the Japanese cherry blossom celebrations. Special foods accompany this seasonal celebration of nature. Chrysanthemums symbolize happiness in China, and strength, courage, and dignity in Japan. The two countries may have different meanings for a single icon, but they both revere chrysanthemums for their beauty and grace.
Despite winter’s cold, snowy days, the plum blossom flourishes and adds a warm touch to the bleak landscape. Plum trees represent long life because they flower even when the tree stops bearing leaves during its last years. The plum blossom has five rounded petals – check out our Plum Blossoms on Blue Yixing Teaset for an example. It is one of China’s main symbols, as each of the petals can be attributed to a different tribe of ancestors in the country. They can also stand for elements of the government.
As you look through your home you may find many other types of plants used as ornamentation. The cherry blossom, pine tree, and bamboo each have central roles in Asian culture. When mixed together, they create special coded messages – the art of ikebana, or flower arranging, takes the symbolic nature of each plant into account, and a large part of the craft involves using the plants for a harmonious and meaningful arrangement. For example, bamboo is known as a hardy plant that bends but does not easily break. Its physical qualities lead to its designated meaning – it represents longevity, strength, and grace. The similarly sturdy pine tree is seen as an icon for long life and steadfastness. When the bamboo and pine are displayed with plum blossoms, they are known as the “Three Friends in Winter” because they thrive even during the harsh winter months. They brighten up the landscape and keep the promise of springtime alive.
Cherry trees mark the beginning of warmer months, and for this their blossoming season is highly anticipated. Japanese citizens celebrate the cherry blossom with a festival called Hanami. People gather to admire the pink and white trees during their short blooming season, and many cultural activities are linked with this time. Cherry blossoms decorate everyday items ranging from stationery to clothing (see our Cherry Blossom in Black Sake Set), and businesses often use blossoms in their logos. What does this flower represent to Japanese people? Firstly, it stands for the loyalty of the citizens. It is a mark of patriotism and pride in the land. Secondly, it was once linked with the samurai because both the flower and the samurai have short but memorable lives. Samurai often wore clothing printed with blossoms. Thirdly, the cherry blossom represents girlhood and femininity. Like the plum and apricot blossoms, it is seen as an icon of innocent charm and grace. If you are interested in learning more about cherry blossoms, please take a look at our Cherry Blossom newsletter in the archive section.
Gingko leaves are another popular image for dishes, chopsticks and teaware (see our Gingko Saucers). The gingko tree has been used for centuries as a source of medicine for circulatory ailments. It represents long life and health. Gingko leaves also represent love – this Valentine’s Day, give a gift emblazoned with a gingko instead of the same old red and pink hearts! Gingkoes are also linked to scholars and Buddhist teachings.
It seems everyone has seen the yin and yang symbol, but some people are not sure what it represents. The icon consists of a circle split in half with a wavy line; half is colored black, and the other half is white. Each half contains a smaller circle of the opposite color. Take a look at a yin and yang symbol on this Yin Yang Yixing Teapot. This icon symbolizes balance in the positive and negative principles of life. The Yang, or white part, stands for light, heaven, sun, and males. The Yin, or darker side, represents Earth, the moon, females, and absorption or darkness. The symbol is said to be based on an egg with its yolk showing. In Feng Shui, the Yin and Yang each have geographical territories – valleys and streams are Yin, while mountains are Yang. The Yin and Yang sign links together many aspects of Chinese culture and philosophy, and its presence in Asian art and design is still dominant in modern pieces.
Similarly, the wave pattern has remained popular because of its simple design - overlapping semicircles connect to create a scaly or wavelike shape. Patterns like this, with a small element repeated continuously, are called “diaper” designs. Cultural factors often play a part in the popularity of diaper patterns – for example, in ancient China, people felt objects were unfinished until their plain surfaces were decorated. Allover patterns like waves and curls are used extensively even in modern designs as a nod to this style of craftsmanship. In Japanese culture, the wave pattern reminded the samurai of the balance needed in warfare; the two colors in the pattern represented offense and defense, just like the balance of yin and yang. It also stands for power and resilience.
Chinese and Japanese patterns often center on animals such as dragons, cranes, and fish. The dragon is a complex symbol in Chinese culture – it represents the emperor, as well male vitality and spirit. Dragons can live among the clouds or in the sea, and they can change size at will. Old folk stories tell of dragons that hibernate in the muddy banks of the river during the winter. When they emerge in springtime, they re-energize the world around them. Some scholars believe the dragon icon may be based on the alligators that surface occasionally on the Yangtze River. Ancient Egyptians worshipped alligators, and they celebrated the season when the animals emerged from their muddy river shores. Chinese dragons have serpent-like bodies with bird-like claws and a mammalian head. Take a look at our Dragon and Phoenix Yixing Bowl and see if you can identify all of the parts. They have long beards and they carry a ball or pearl. Dragons are often shown in pairs playing with the pearl. The tiger is another important animal in Chinese culture. Perhaps you have seen it on clothing, or maybe it is peeking through a bamboo forest in a picture. What does it symbolize? Well, in Chinese culture, the tiger is the king of all land animals. He is well respected like his friend the dragon (who rules all of the aquatic animals), and he has equally mythical powers. Among them, the tiger frightens demons and encourages warriors. In past centuries, there were many more tigers in the woods of China, and it was not safe to walk alone in many areas. People respect these large cats for their stealth and prowess. By wearing clothes emblazoned with tigers, they hope to gain their powers. Tigers were also used for medicine in ancient times – some say that tigers’ whiskers can cure a toothache. Maybe you should stick to wearing his stripes.
Stylized butterflies can more than just a pretty image on your dishware or clothing (but don’t forget to take a look at our Butterfly Chopstick Rest). These insects are a popular subject among ancient poets because they represent joy and summertime. Butterflies are also a sort of matchmaker, like Cupid. Philosopher Chuang Tzu told a story of a young man who accidentally entered a retired official’s private garden while chasing a butterfly. There he met the magistrate’s daughter and fell in love instantly; the couple married and the young man rose in rank. The butterfly has come to represent marital happiness and beauty – celebrate a wedding or an anniversary with this special icon, and wish your loved ones the best in life.
Cranes make their way into many tales and legends in Chinese culture. They are revered as a symbol of longevity, and are seen as the male leader of the birds. Cranes are reputed to hold mythical powers, such as immortality, and stories tell of men changing themselves into cranes. Some people decorate coffins with cranes to bring the departed into the realm of the immortal. Cranes are often depicted beside pine trees because they both symbolize long life and age. If you would like to know more about these regal birds, take a look at our Cranes newsletter in the archives.
The crane may be the king of the birds, but the phoenix is by far the most popular and well loved in legends. This mythical creature appears only in times of peace and happiness. Like the dragon, it is comprised of body parts found in other animals – for example, it has a snake-like neck, the throat of a swallow, and the stripes of a dragon. Take a look at our Phoenix and Dragon Yixing Tea Set. The phoenix seems to be a mix of several different birds, and its feathers come in five colors and twelve patterns. It is a popular icon for Buddhists because it is benevolent and refuses to kill other animals. The phoenix represents the bounty of the summer harvest as well as peaceful rulers. You can learn more about this ancient symbol in our archived newsletter entitled: The Mythical Dragon and Phoenix.
Fish gain their important symbolism from the Chinese language. When spoken, the word for carp sounds similar to the word for “business.” The carp symbolizes a wish for good luck in business affairs. Similarly, the word for “fish” is very close to “affluence” or “abundance.” Goldfish specifically refer to an abundance of gold, so they are seen as lucky animals. Without any knowledge of the Chinese language, these icons might not seem to relate to their meanings.
Now that you know a little more about the hidden messages in your everyday life, you can better understand the complex symbolism of Asian art and design. As you browse through our collections, you can choose special and meaningful gifts for your friends and family.
OUR 2005 NEWSLETTERS
Fortune Cookies: The Real San Fransisco Treat
Full Of Fortune
All About Sushi (part II)
Secret Lives Of Geisha
Specialty Japanese Cookware
Rice The Golden Grain
Summer Wedding Gift Guide
Washi Paper Production and Uses
Symbols of Happiness and Longevity in Asian Culture
Bamboo – A Versatile Plant
Symbolism in Asian Motifs and Patterns
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