Symbolisms of Oriental Painting 3

Continuing from our previous post, let us pull our focus to the last aspect of the point of discussion, the symbolism related to longevity. Longevity is a topic that engaged the most undivided interests of all people – from the emperors to the general public – for centuries. The ultimate goal of the Taoism pursuit is longevity and immortality, to become the “raised person in the mountains” as shown in the character “仙”. And the Taoism beliefs are deeply embedded in the cultural foundation. There are many recorded methods for someone to maintain high levels of energy and even rejuvenate according to the Taoism, including the way to intake food, the way to manage the body and spirit, and some of the famous Taoists were recorded to have lived for more than 800 years of age. This may be a far fetched exaggeration, but the society until today is still quite obsessed with maintaining a healthy lifestyle and obtain longevity in all ways possible.

In the search for longevity many happy accidents took place, including the discovery of Toufu and gunpowder. When it comes to the symbols of longevity however, there are many as you can imagine. Let us explore a few selected ones in this post!

Pine Trees

Pine trees are typical representations of longevity, probably because of its ever green appearance, its vibrant life energy, and its actual longevity. Pines are painted often in the oriental paintings, usually combined with a bird, crane.


Cranes are often seen in the oriental art, they are pure and elegant and they are loved by the general public. The cranes are believed to be “fairy” birds, as they are recorded to be able to live between 60 and 100 years. Such long living animals naturally are worshipped, and somewhere along the way their stories become more magical. The ancient book says, when the crane lives up 1000 years, it becomes “cang” (仓); And when they live to 2000 years, they become black. So between the pine trees and the crane, both share similarities in their longevity and other representation, therefore the two often are painted together.

Shen Quan (1682-1760)

Peaches have been planted in China for over 3000 years, and there are many mythical stories involving them: the heavenly palace has a peach garden, and there are 3 levels of peaches inside. They ripe once every 3000, 6000, and 9000 years respectively. Whoever eats them will gain immortality, and will maintain great health for eternity. These peaches are used for the birthday party of the Jade emperor and his empress, and in the modern human world the peach shaped cakes are still used during birthdays bearing the meaning of longevity. The stories of peaches and their magical powers have been told throughout history, and even the wood from peach trees, the prosperous peach blossoms all have great meanings associated with them, providing blessings to all.

In paintings the meaning of a peach is quite obvious, they not only have beautiful colors, but also bear the blessing of longevity.

Peach Blossoms and Love Birds, Fiona Sheng
Paradise Flycatcher

These are rather interesting birds unique to the eastern world. They usually are red, and the males have long and elegant tails. They are rather small birds, but are multi-functional in all kinds of oriental paintings, especially when they carry the name “寿带”, literally meaning the ribbon of longevity. Red as you know is festive color, and therefore this birds contain everything that the oriental world loves – longevity and happiness. You may often see these birds painted with peony flowers, or even paired with bamboo, then the painting can almost “speak” directly to you: to wish you longevity and prosperity. Bamboo, “zhu”, in sound, is similar to the word that means “to wish”; the rest of the images you already understand by now, they respectively mean longevity and prosperity.

Longevity, Fiona Sheng
Cats & Butterflies

Did you know that cats mean more than wealth? Especially when they appear together with butterflies! Cats, “mao”; Butterfly, “dié” in sound, are similar to the word used to describe elderly people of the age of 80 or 90, “mao dié”, “耄耋”. In the ancient times, the elderly of such ages are definitely people of longevity, and therefore it is common to wish for anyone to live to that age and have a healthy and harmonious life.

Cats & Butterfly, Fiona Sheng

So far we attempted to explore the world of symbolism in the oriental art world. There are many more in fact, which we will leave for discussions in the future! I wish that from these 3 posts that you are able to gain some in depth understanding regarding the mysterious oriental art, and now you should be able to “decode” the hidden languages much better! Are there other things that caught your eyes but for which you could not find an explanation? Leave me a comment and let me help you solve the mystery!

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

Mindful Art, Zen Home | InkDifferent Studio

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!

Mindful Art, Zen Home | InkDifferent Studio

Symbolisms of Oriental Painting 1

We say that a picture is worth a thousand words, it is especially true in the oriental paintings. The oriental society is full of riddles, in poetry, in visual art, and in the daily iterations. Perhaps the mystery around the oriental world has a lot to do with this “speaking in riddles” tendency, adding to the difficulties in the intercultural communication. So, today let us start to try and resolve some aspects of such difficulties, and discuss some important symbolisms in the painting and daily lives.

To discuss these symbols, we shall first understand what the general public wants: happiness, wealth and longevity. The absolute majority of the symbolisms are related to one or more of these aspects. To start with, let us discuss what things are considered “happy” or “content”. Generally speaking, auspicious things bring happiness, beautiful plants and fortunate events can all be considered happy. In this category almost any flower, bird, fish, auspicious animal and even mythical creatures can come in. But we are going to take some special examples.


One animal that stands out is the bat. Bats (“蝠”) in pronunciation is similar to happiness (“福”), “fu”, and bats appear quite often in traditional auspicious images. If you take a look at these characters, you may see that they are identical in right side. The left sides suggest their “properties”, in here bats belong to the “worm” family, and the happiness go with the “pray” radical.

Gods of Happiness, Wealth and Longevity

Illustration from the internet

The three aspects that concern our daily lives each has a governing god shown in the illustration. The one with the official hat is the wealth god; the one with the large forehead is the longevity god, and the other adult is the happiness god. These gods are often seen together in the same hall of a temple.

In this illustration you can also see a few bats flying above, they are the bringers of happiness in these illustrations, but it does not mean that people actually enjoying their company in homes!


The magpies are very lucky birds in the oriental beliefs, the origin can be traced back to a story where a man was wrongfully imprisoned. One day he saw a magpie singing at the window of his cell, and a few days after this sighting he was magically released! Since then, magpies have always been associated with fortune and happiness. In traditional weddings they are also often seen, especially in pairs.

Painting by Fiona Sheng

The reason why magpies represent happiness is also in their names, “喜鹊”, happiness bird, and the first character “喜” is the same character used in wedding ceremonies. This character is sometimes written as “囍”, as people love happiness in pair, they even doubled the happiness in the written character!


You may find this one interesting, chicken in Chinese is “鸡”, and the word for auspicious is “吉”, and these two characters share the sound “ji” in common, even though the tones are different. From this similarity however, chicken (roosters included) are taken to mean happiness and fortune. You most likely have seen oriental paintings of chicken or roosters, other than the fact that they are very household animals, the notion of auspiciousness is not to be underestimated!

The chicken was thought to be the inspiration of the creation of phoenixes. They are considered diligent beings, as they announce the arrival of dawn each morning, they are also seen as virtuous creatures – the five colors associated with the five elements can all be seen in the same body, and they each represent one key aspect of virtue.

In addition, roosters also have a large red crown, and crowns are just as important as hats in the official ranks – they suggest social status. Having roosters in paintings potentially bring career advancements too. Plus the roosters are brave, they hold their heads high – all these qualities are absolutely loved in the oriental culture.

Goats or Sheep

The last one I would like to mention is goat or sheep. In Chinese these words are not immediately distinguishable without a defining adjective. The character of goat or sheep is “羊”, whereas the character of auspicious is “祥”. You can see why these animals are worth mentioning! They were quite often used as decorative patterns since ancient times, and they serve as one of the key animals in sacrifice rituals. In later societies the rich families could also afford to raise them, connecting them subsequently to the notion of wealth. Therefore in traditional paintings, you can find their rather frequent appearance.

Four-Goat Square Zun, Chinese National Museum, about 3000 years old

There are many symbolisms in the oriental culture, and today we are just starting to scratch the surface. In the coming blogs I will try and uncover more of such “secret codes” and share them with you, so stay tune!

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

Mindful Art, Zen Home | InkDifferent Studio