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Symbolism, Flora, & Fauna of Chinese Art

Introduction

Images of plants and animals, both real and mythical, pervade Chinese art and culture. Orchid, bamboo, plum blossom, lotus, tiger, swallow, bat, crane, and, of course, the dragon. To understand these symbols is to participate at a fundamental level in Chinese culture. Seeing a dragon gives the experience of imperial power, divine mystery, and the eternal potential for change. Seeing a plum blossom invokes a sense of the value of perseverance and the miracle of spring. Even more importantly, to recognize these symbols is to experience the qualities that give our life meaning and to know that these qualities are vibrations that pervade the physical world.
Taoism, from which so much of feng shui derives, conveys its principles through the use of symbols. The Five Elements all have correspondences in the physical realm. The ten Earthly Branches are represented by animals. Chinese artists of all disciplines—painting, sculpture, jewelry, textiles, architecture—have used these motifs in their work, and you have undoubtedly seen them. Subsequent articles here will describe some of the most common motifs used through the ages in Chinese culture. May knowledge of these symbols enrich your experience both of Chinese art and of the world.

Chinese Unicorn, Qilin (麒麟)

“The [Qilin] or unicorn […] is a fabulous creature of good omen and the symbol of longevity, grandeur, felicity, illustrious offspring, and wise administration.” So begins C.A.S. Williams’ description of this elusive beast in his classic, Outlines of Chinese Symbolism. The Qilin is one of the four mythical beasts of ancient China, the others being the Dragon, Phoenix, and Tortoise and, in the earliest times, it was considered the chief among them.
What the Qilin looks like
Accounts differ in the details, but all agree that the Qilin is a composite of several animals’ characteristics. According to some, the Qilin has the body of a musk deer, tail of an ox, forehead of a wolf, hooves of a horse, and skin of five colors. The male (Lin) has one or two horns, while the female (Qi) has no horns. According to others, the Qilin has the body of a horse, scales of a fish, and two horns bent backwards. For the modern viewer, in most of its representations, the Qilin looks like a dragon-headed lion; that is, it is depicted as a four-legged animal with a fantastic head (flowing mane, thick eyelashes, open mouth) and a single horn, which is often inconspicuous.
Where it is seen…
… in the world
The living Qilin, it is said, only appears when a king of the highest benevolence sits on the throne or when a sage is born. The last time it was seen was in the time of Confucius.
… in art
The Qilin is depicted in paintings and embroideries, usually as a solitary animal, often with dragon-like scales and head. At weddings, the Goddess of Fecundity may be pictured riding on a Qilin with a child in her arms. At New Year’s, decorations may include images of a youth riding a Qilin with a lotus in hand. At court, military officers of the highest grade wore robes with the Qilin embroidered on them. Today, a stone Qilin may be placed outside a bank or government building.
Recently, the Qilin has also appeared in popular culture. The Japanese beer, Kirin, is named for the Qilin. And it appears in various video games, including Dungeons and Dragons.
What the Qilin represents
The Qilin represents perfection in human virtue. It is kind and benevolent, and, at the same time, wise. It has been called the incarnate essence of the Five Elements. The Qilin is also strongly associated with a large family of children, especially sons.
What the Qilin is not: Distinguishing the Qilin from Lions
The Qilin should not be confused with the Chinese guardian lions (sometimes called “Fu Dogs”), which often appear as statues outside buildings. Guardian lions generally appear in pairs, and are seated, with one paw on a ball or small cub. Qilin generally appear alone (single), standing.
Saying: “Xi Huo Lin Er” (喜獲麟兒)
This phrase translates, literally, as “Happy – Capture- Qilin – Child, son.” It is used to congratulate parents on the birth of a baby boy. It expresses the wish that the young child will grow up with the qualities of the Qilin, compassion and wisdom. At the same time, because the Qilin only appears when conditions are right, comparing the new baby to a Qilin means that the family itself is of the highest virtue. Thus, the phrase actually blesses the entire family.
 
Image courtesy of flickr.com/Keith Roper

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