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1,000 Cranes in Asian Culture and Art - March 2004 Newsletter

 

Steeped in ancient myths and carrying resonant cultural meanings, the crane occupies a central role in the Asian imagination. Anyone who has witnessed cranes flying through the early morning mist over shimmering green rice paddies will readily understand how the mysterious beauty of the crane has captivated Asian life and art for centuries. Like the dragon, tiger, and phoenix, the crane ranks among the favorite motifs for Asian artwork because of its rich meaning and history.

Perhaps one of the primary reasons cranes dominate the Asian imagination is because they have also dominated the Asian landscape for centuries. The same wet conditions that encourage the cultivation of Asia’s staple rice crops also create ideal crane habitats. Nine out of the fifteen crane species recognized worldwide can be found in China alone, where wild cranes continue to nest and feed in the rural areas.

These wild cranes have inspired Asian artwork and mythology for centuries, resulting in a rich tapestry of subtle meanings blended into the graceful form of the crane. Most commonly, cranes represent good health and longevity. According to ancient belief, these long-lived cranes served as messengers for the mountain recluse-sages, and carried the Taoist immortals on their wings. The regal, upright carriage of these elegant cranes reflects their dignified status as the noble birds most worthy of serving the ancient immortals. This association with the immortals lends to the myth of the cranes’ longevity, inspiring the famous Japanese expression, “A crane lives a thousand years and a tortoise ten-thousand.” While a crane usually lives to only about 30 or 40 years, their comparatively long life supports the popular myth of longevity.

Besides its principle meanings of health and longevity, the crane also represents many different values for various Asian cultures. With its long, white feathers and elegant form, the crane easily symbolizes purity and cleanliness. When ancient Chinese witnessed the beautiful spectacle of cranes flying high across the clear blue skies, they envisioned the graceful bird as soaring above the dusty world of common impurities, and ascending to the heavens on its clean, white wings. According to ancient Chinese legends, cranes were thought to be “well-behaved like gentlemen, incorruptible and naturally clean and honest.”

The natural elegance of the crane’s form and movements inspired the admiration of ancient cultures. As a result, they respected the crane as the undisputed leader of all the earthly birds, and a powerful symbol for many of the traits desirable in a comparably refined and noble gentleman. According to traditional culture, the crane “has only one over him and millions under him.” Although ruled by the legendary phoenix, the crane occupied a role vastly superior to all the other existing birds. This high position mirrored that of the emperor, who was ruled only by Heaven’s will, and lorded over all the subjects in his empire. To be compared to a crane, then, ranked among the highest compliments. A respected person was often called “a figure extolled by the crane”; this was commonly understood to be a refined way of praising someone for being exceptionally honest and morally upright. Likewise, someone could also be compared to “a crane standing among chickens,” indicating that person’s special abilities and obvious, comparative superiority.

As a result of the crane’s auspicious symbol, it soon came to be associated with those gentlemen who held high and coveted positions in the government. During the Ming and Qin dynasties, the highest official rank was denoted by a crane pattern on the official robe’s decorative patch. To dream of a flying crane was always considered a good omen, and was popularly interpreted as a sign that the dreamer would become a high-ranking official.

Today, this tradition of using the crane as an auspicious and beautiful symbol survives in Asian artwork and crafts. The common and recurring motif of cranes can be found throughout Asian woodwork, embroidery, architecture, and marshal arts styles. An exceptionally old and extraordinarily beautiful example of the crane’s importance can be found at the Yellow Crane Tower in China, which was first built in 223. According to legend, the tower was constructed to commemorate the flight of an immortal towards heaven on the back of a rare yellow crane. This tower has been celebrated in poems through the centuries, with admirers ranging from the Tang dynasty poet Cui Hao to the Chinese People’s Republic leader Mao Zedong.

More ancient traditions associated with the crane and its elegant form include the popular White Crane martial arts style. According to legend, a Tibetan monk first formulated this fighting style after watching a white crane and white ape battling each other. The crane gracefully and quickly avoided the monkey’s attacks, then forcefully blinded the monkey’s eye with its beak. Because this style draws its inspiration from the crane and its movements, followers of the White Crane style emphasize quick and graceful execution with powerful arm motions and firm footwork.

Just as the White Crane style survives to the present day, when martial arts enthusiasts continue to practice and develop the ancient fighting style, so too does the crane in general survive as a popular symbol for Asian culture and values. While the crane’s elegant figure adorns everything from keepsake boxes to purses and tableware, one of the most powerful representations of the crane comes in the form of origami.

Treasured by the Japanese culture as a symbol for honor and loyalty, the crane quickly became one of their favorite art subjects for heraldic emblems, paintings, and paper folding, otherwise known as origami. In the late 1700s, one of the first books on origami was published with the title, “How to Fold 1,000 Cranes.” This origami book’s emphasis on cranes was no coincidence: the crane was then, as now, among the most famous origami figures. Today, children and adults continue to enjoy folding paper cranes. The easy-to-follow directions and beautiful end result ensure the continuing popularity of the origami crane. Moreover, the paper crane occupies a unique and meaningful position in Japanese culture and history.

As with so many other Asian cultures, the Japanese also prize the crane for the desirable values which it symbolizes. The strength, grace, and beauty of the crane inspires awe and admiration in those privileged to witness a wild crane. Moreover, the crane’s habit of mating with only one partner for the duration of its life caused it to become a strong symbol for marital fidelity and honor. As a result, the origami crane also became a powerful symbol for loyalty, nobility, and beauty. According to Japanese tradition, anyone with the patience and commitment to fold 1,000 paper cranes will be granted their most desired wish, because they have exhibited the cranes’ loyalty and recreated their beauty.

Following this tradition, then, Japanese couples will often fold 1,000 cranes together before their wedding. This ancient ritual is called sembazuru, and the tradition is called tsuru wa sennen. It was especially important for noble couples to demonstrate their ability to work together and create a lasting work of art. Regardless of nobility, however, the act of folding so many cranes inevitably helped bring the pair together, teaching them to cooperate with patience and trust. Moreover, the finished product would serve as an enduring reminder of the crane’s natural commitment and loyal companionship to its single life partner.

Just as paper cranes can welcome a new union of lovers, so too can they celebrate the passing of a loved one’s life. Sadako Sasaki became famous for her own attempt to fold 1,000 cranes in the 1950s. When Sadako was only two years old, she was exposed to radiation from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, in Japan. As she grew up, she developed leukemia. Suffering from the deadly disease, she learned the ancient legend about the 1,000 paper cranes. Inspired to follow the legend, Sadako folded paper cranes in her hospital bed, praying for world peace. Sadako died when she was only 12, before she could finish 1,000 cranes. As a tribute to Sadako’s life and selfless wishes, her classmates folded the remaining cranes, and Sadako Sasaki was buried with the full 1,000 cranes. Her story stands as an inspiration to all, and a testament to the continued power of the paper crane as a compelling symbol for hope, love, and honor.

Throughout the centuries, the crane has provided an endless source of inspiration and beauty to individuals such as Sadako and her classmates. Countless poets have immortalized cranes in their writing; architects have built landmarks and temples to celebrate their nobility and grace; and artists of all sorts—from professional painters to schoolchildren folding cranes—continue to celebrate the crane through their creations. Although the specific symbolic meaning of the crane may differ from culture to culture, or from occasion to occasion, the unmistakable elegance convey a calming spirit of harmony and beauty.

Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen is privileged to carry a wide variety of products bearing crane motifs, suitable for every special occasion and celebration. Cranes—or items decorated with crane motifs—make ideal gifts because of their deep symbolic history as well as their natural beauty. For birthdays or anniversaries, consider a gift bearing the popular image of a crane with a peach of longevity, or a crane with a pine tree—yet another symbol for long life. The crane with the pine tree remains a popular wedding motif in many Asian countries, symbolizing the good wishes for the bride and groom to share a long and prosperous life together. Or, for a more personalized approach, consider folding origami cranes for those close to you. Better yet, gather friends and family to fold cranes together, and collaborate to create a beautiful and meaningful work of art. With the elegant form of the crane, Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen hopes to bring the beauty of Asia into your home, and to offer all the best wishes for life and distinction which the crane carries on its graceful white wings.

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Travel to Asia: China

1,000 Cranes in Asian Culture and Art

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