Symbolisms of Oriental Painting 2

In the previous post we discussed several symbolic animals that represent one of the most engaging aspects of life that people pursue – happiness. Today let us continue our discussion and focus on the second aspect, wealth. Wealth is a topic that can also refer to prosperity in terms of a country, and therefore the concept of wealth carries both micro and macro meanings. In the most common sense, wealth is represented by the amount of money, and more money for most people would mean better life, and as you may have imagined by now, there are many symbols of wealth. The most important symbol of wealth in fact, is water.


Water is a fun topic in the oriental culture. It is one of the most fundamental elements in our lives, it nurtures us – where there is water, there is life. Since the ancient time, nature operates via water, the harmony in nature guarantees our survival as human. Taoism says that the highest form of virtue is like water, which benefits all but requires nothing in return. In superstition, “feng shui” stands out as an interesting topic – “feng” means wind, and “shui” is water. The location of objects in this theory could alter our luck, change our fortune, and even today many businesses and individuals still hold such beliefs. I am not certain whether “feng shui” is effective, but its influence is and has been significant. In the art world, we have the landscape painting, which is simply called the “mountain-water” painting; and the oriental painting can also be called the “water-ink” painting. So as an element and as a concept, water is ubiquitous.

In the traditional slangs, water is heavily linked with wealth, especially accumulated water. This is why you can see quite some water features such as fountains and fish ponds in front of business mansions, people’s homes or gardens. From the aesthetics perspective alone however, I wonder if a nicely maintained place with beautiful sceneries provide enough attraction. Nonetheless, the water, and the water flow is a key concept that governs wealth and should be understood.

orange fish underwater
Water and fish

Related to water, fish can also mean wealth. This is based on its pronunciation, “yu”. We have a blessing that says “may your family has enough reserves every year”, in here, the word “reserve” sounds just like fish, and therefore fish not only became a beloved symbol of wealth, but also it became a must-have dish on the holiday dining table. Carps are the best representations of such fish in the Chinese society; Koi in Japan shares the fish concept too, meaning fortune and health. Fish paintings have the same meaning, but in addition there is an elevated level of understanding, as fish is not only wealth, it is also a sign of laborious efforts coming into fruition. We have a traditional tale that fish can work hard and jump over a heavenly gate and become a dragon. As you may know that the Asian education is tough, long hours and endless tasks, but the goal is clear and rather unified – to rise beyond the original social class and become something more, just like the fish becoming a dragon.

Pi Xiu

Pi Xiu, a magical creature that only eats but does not poop!

Introduce to you yet another mythical creature in the traditional oriental world, this animal has a dragon’s head, horse’s body, Qilin’s feet, has an overall lion look, and it is known to bring great fortune to those around, especially because it absorbs everything, fortune included. In this picture the scaly circular coins on its body clearly represents money, as there is the character “wealth” written on each coin.


These cats as you have seen all over the world means fortune in terms of wealth and luck! Some say that the raised left paw means “happiness come”, and the raised right paw means “money arrive”, and of course, when both paws are raised, then both money and luck would be welcome to come! Others say that the right paw welcomes businesses during the day and the left paw greets the customers at night, but whichever might be the reason, these cats are great presentations of wealth and they are loved worldwide. The little bells hanging at its neck brings extra fortune btw!

One word of clarification about them though is that they are Japanese, so no matter how many Chinese shops sell them, they came from Japan.

Peony Flower

The peony flowers could only be raised by the very rich, its ascend to fame lasted throughout the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907). During this time it was almost considered a hard commodity in circulation, one single string of the peony plant was worth millions. The people who are associated with the peony flowers either came from royal families or were important governmental officials, making these flowers special and high-class. Compared with the other famous flowers, such as chrysanthemum flowers, orchid, lotus, plum blossoms, the prosperous and busy peony blossoms stood out, became the representation of wealth. From there on, it was no longer that the rich raised peony, it also became that the peony flowers brought wealth. With the various poems praising peonies, they began to be recognized as the bringer of wealth, and this belief became more and more widespread.

Peony Flower, Gongbi Painting, Fiona Sheng

In the Southern regions of Asian and Southeastern Asia, oranges are a necessity during holidays, because they are not only auspicious fruits, but also great spokesperson of wealth! This has to do with the sound of the character, “Ju” which sounds the same in certain dialects as “Ji”, auspicious, this is where this fruit started to attract more and more attention. During holidays people would even bring oranges as gifts to friends and family to wish them the best. It was most likely the color of this fruit that gave them the additional meaning of wealth in fact, these golden round fruits resemble blessings in so many ways, making them a perfect representative of wealth too.

mandarin fruit
Oranges, Ju or Ji?

In paintings, not all the greatest symbols of the oriental culture is suitable, but a great number of them is, which can create some rather strange images in the painting, such as flowers from different seasons painted together. People use these symbols to “speak” in a painting, so in order to get a full understanding of an art piece from the oriental world one needs to dig a little deeper!

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

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