Chinese Arts & Crafts

Chinese Arts & Crafts

Monday, June 30, 2014

Chinese Auspicious Symbols and Designs

You all well know that the dragon is a legendary figure of the Chinese mythology and folklore, but do you know the symbolic meaning hidden behind this creature? And did you know that many animals and plants hide a symbolic meaning as well?

"Smiling" dragon in the Forbidden City, Beijing

Symbolic meanings are an intrinsic part of Chinese culture and, more than merely decorative, the symbols and motifs that appear on Chinese art and craft works often represent hidden meanings that convey a desire for the good things in life.
Since ancient times the Chinese have been attaching great importance to auspiciousness (吉祥ji xiang in Chinese), expressing with auspicious symbols not only their yearnings for wealth, fame, health, safety, longevity, happiness, etc., but also their values, taste and lifestyle.
The nature of their written and spoken language has contributed to the rich vocabulary of symbolism. The large numbers of homophones in the Chinese language means that words with different meanings can be associated with each other due to a similarity of sound when spoken. As well as linguistic symbolism, there are symbols which originated from ancient cosmological and mythical beliefs.

Pillow with lotus embroidery at the Jade Buddha Temple, Shanghai

Auspicious designs symbolizing good luck first appeared during the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century BC), were greatly developed during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) Dynasties, and reached their peak of popularity during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties.
Auspicious symbols are vital to a good understanding of Chinese culture: surrounding oneself with objects bearing auspicious symbols was, and still is, commonly believed to increase the likelihood of wish fulfillment.
Such desire and aspirations are expressed in depictions of plants, animals, human figures, and objects, alone or in combination, and there is so many of them that it`s very easy to get lost. That`s why with this post I decided to give you an overview of the most recurrent symbols in Chinese art and craft works  For more convenience I divided them into four categories, so if you click on the links below the list of symbols with their explanation will open in a different page. Enjoy reading and next time you go to an exhibition or travel to China take a closer look to spot the symbols on artifacts, clothing, furniture and architecture!

Part 1 - Auspicious Beasts and Birds
Part 4 - Auspicious Chinese Characters and Objects

Auspicious Beasts and Birds

Decorative patterns with animals appeared in Chinese history as early as during the Neolithic period. The patterns include not only existing animals but also legendary beasts.

Dragon ( - Lóng)
Of all traditional auspicious patterns the dragon certainly ranks first in terms of its long history and popularity. Since ancient times it has been considered the totem of the Chinese nation, and it is the most powerful symbol of good fortune as well as a symbol of power (it`s considered to be the king of all animals and was symbol of the emperor). According to the legend, the dragon is a composite animal: it has camel snout, antlers of a deer, rabbit eyes, serpent body with fish scales and fish tail, cow ears and eagle claws. 
According to the pattern, dragon designs can be divided into different categories, such as Twin Dragons holding onto a pearl, Dragon in a circle, Dragon and clouds, etc.

Twin Dragons holding on to a pearl, Beihai Park, Beijing

Phoenix ( - FèngHuáng)
The Phoenix is the king of birds and symbolizes good fortune and opportunity as it appears only in times of peace and prosperity. The Phoenix too is a composite beast, and it`s depicted as having the head of a chicken, the chin of a swallow, the neck of a snake, the claws of an eagle, the tail of a fish, the back of a turtle and the feathers of a peacock. Its Chinese name is the general term of legendary bird, both male and female, with Fèng denoting male and Huáng female. The combination of Phoenix and Dragon is a common pattern, and represent the perfect manifest of happiness and blessing.

Plate with Phoenix and Dragon, Suzhou Museum

Kylin (麒麟 - Qílín)
Kylin, a mythical creature in ancient Chinese legends, is the saddle horse of the immortals. The mythical Kylin is an animal with a dragon-like head surmounted by a pair of deer’s antlers and eyes of a lion. It has the scales of a snake, hooves of a horse and the tail of a cow. It is said that it can live as long as 2000 years, it can spit fire and its voice sounds like a thunder. Despite this Kylin has a mild temperament and, as it is friendly towards men it`s known as benevolent creature. In the folk culture it was believed that Kylin could bring offspring to people. The most popular legend about the Kylin delivering a child tells the story of the birth of Confucius. A Kylin, with a jade scroll in its mouth, appeared in the courtyard of his parents’ home. The scroll disclosed that the baby to be born is going to be “a man of extraordinary good moral character and talent, an exemplar of human excellence.  Although he is not on the throne, he has the virtue of a king”. On the same night Confucius was born. From this legend originated many auspicious patterns, of which “Kylin delivers a child” is the most popular.
Gold-plated Bronze Kylin in the Forbidden City, Beijing
Kylin delivering a child, New Year Wood Print

Lion (狮子 - Shīzi)
In traditional Chinese culture lions can expel specters and foresee disasters. Most commonly seen lion patterns include the “Auspicious Lion Playing with a Ball” and the “Adult Lion and Baby Lion”. The former originated from the Lion Dance, in which two people act as a lion (one waving the lion head and the other waving the lion body and tail) while another person holds a silk ball to play with the lion. The latter symbolizes promotion or passing down of social status and wealth one generation after another.

Gold-plated Bronze Lion playing with a ball in the Forbidden City, Beijing

Tiger ( - )
Similarly to the lion, tigers can expel specters and bring good luck, for this reason prints with a tiger design were very commonly seen on the front door of houses. Another common patter featuring tigers is the “Tiger guards against the five poisonous creatures”. The five poisonous creatures refer to scorpion, viper, centipede, house lizard and toad, and symbolize the pests and destructive insects frequently seen in summer and autumn in ancient China.

New Year Wood Print of the Home Protecting Tiger

Fish ( - )
The fish symbolizes wealth as yu for ‘fish’ sounds like the yu for ‘abundance and affluence’. Due to its reproductive capability the fish also signifies marriage and the birth of many children. One of the most popular designs featuring this symbol is the “Carp leaping over the Dragon Gate”. According to an old tale, the legendary founder of the Xia Dynasty Da Yu to control the floods of the Yellow River built the Dragon Gate on Mount Longmen. Since then, many carps have come to the gate every year and have tried to jump over it. Those who successfully do so will turn into a dragon. During the Tang Dynasty, when the imperial examination system was adopted and grew popular, people described those who excelled in the examination as “climbing on the Dragon Gate”. Therefore the image of the carp jumping over the Dragon Gate became an auspicious pattern to wish students success in examinations.  

Paper cut with Carp leaping over the Dragon Gate

Bat (蝙蝠 - Biānfú)
The Chinese for bat sounds identical to the word for good fortune (fu ) making bats a popular symbol of happiness and good fortune since ancient times. Particularly popular is the design with five bats together, which represents the “Five Blessings” ( wufu 五福): long life, wealth, health, love of virtue and a peaceful death. 

Gourd shaped vase decorated with bats,
picture from Asian art museum website

Crane ( - )
With a life span of about fifty or sixty years the crane is a symbol of longevity. It also represents high status as the crane is regarded as ‘a bird of the first rank’ in the imperial hierarchy. Flying cranes symbolizes a wish or hope to become an official in a higher position.

Male vest with Crane embroidery, Suzhou Museum

Magpies (喜鹊 - Xǐquè)

Since ancient times magpies have been considered as a symbol of good luck and fortune. According to the classic folk tale “Cowherd and Weaving Maiden”, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month each year, all magpies on hearth will fly to the heaven and build a bridge over the Milky Way so that Zhi Nu (the star Vega) and Niu Lang (the star Altair) could meet on the bridge. The magpie bridge is therefore seen as symbol of love and the image of magpie is often related to happy events. Chinese people also believe that the appearance of magpies foretells the imminence of a joyful event or good news. A popular pattern features magpies on the branches of plum trees and implies the coming of good news or happy events.

Luzhou Oil Paper Umbrella with Magpies on plum tree branches

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Introduction to Chinese paper cutting

When I first visited China as a tourist I was attracted by the bright red color of the paper cuts sold at the souvenir stalls around Yu Garden. At first I thought it was something to put in a frame and hang on a wall, so I was very surprised to see doors and windows of Chinese houses adorned with them.

Souvenir shop at Yu Garden

The paper cut I bought
I started wondering about the paper cutting`s meaning and origin, and that`s when I came across a charming book titled “Zhao Quan – The Paper-Cut of Yuxian County”, the first volume of the collection “Craftsman”, which features, as the name suggests, famous craftsmen representative of different Chinese folk arts. Composed of five chapters, the book introduces the life of the paper cutting master Zhao Quan, the tools he uses, the process of paper cutting and his works. The book is published only in Chinese unfortunately, but it`s full of inviting pictures that made it accessible even to me with my limited knowledge of Chinese.
The pictures below are some shots of the book.

Before reading this book I thought that the paper cuts come only in red, and feature only auspicious symbols, but actually they can be very colorful and cover nearly all topics, from flowers, birds, animals, legendary people, to figures in classic novels. Paper cut can be found throughout China in various ethnic groups, therefore motifs vary greatly and depend on the region of origin, but generally they are classified in two main genres, the northern style and the southern style, each influenced by their geography and local culture.

As one of the most classic folk arts in China and integral element of everyday life, paper cut was put in 2009 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

It`s difficult to tell the exact period when the art of paper-cutting originated in China. Excavations at the ruins of the ancient city of Gaochang in Turpan, Xinjiang, unearthed paper cuts showing a pair of horses and a pair of monkeys dating back 1500 years to the period of the Northern and Southern dynasties. They are among the earliest examples of cut paper to have been found. 

Actually, the cultural implication and art forms of paper cut can be traced back before the invention of the paper to pre-historical societies, when people used different materials such as gold, leather, silk and even leaves, to carve and engrave patterns.
But as the logic shows, paper cutting needs paper so, strictly speaking, paper cutting origins should be placed after AD 105, the year in which the Chinese invented papermaking (even though recent archaeological investigations place the actual invention of papermaking some 200 years earlier). The early paper cutting was probably associated with religious rites, and only gradually it developed into a form of art. 
As a cultural carrier of the original Chinese philosophy, paper cut is embodied in all aspects of folk custom and culture, and the uses to which it was put were many. The first use was mainly decorative; paper cut were pasted on windows (hence the name Window Flowers), ceilings, doors and lanterns. Another use of paper cuts was related to other folk crafts, as it was used as guide for woodcarvers and embroiderers, and as stencils for transferring color to lacquer ware. The paper cut can be also found during festivities (weddings, birthdays and other ceremonies), or in form of prayers (invoking the rain, warding off the devil, etc.).
Nowadays Chinese paper cuts are still used as decoration, especially during the Spring Festival and wedding days.
There is a paper cut design for each occasion: during the Chinese New Year, the character “Fu” (福, good fortune) is pasted on the door, at a weddings the character “Xi” (, double happiness) is a must on the newlywed’s door, and on seniors` birthday paper cuttings with the character “Shou” (寿, longevity) are often seen.

“Fu” (福)

“Xi” (囍)

“Shou” (寿)
Paper cutting is pure handwork, but due to the modern industrial production the traditional sense of paper cutting is facing grave challenges and its values, handed down from generation to generation, are changing. Nowadays unfortunately it became more and more difficult to find authentic handmade paper cutting. 

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to paper cuts! In a different post I will talk about the paper cutting technique and style typical of Yuxian County.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Shadow Magic - Chinese Shadow Puppetry

How many of you watched Kung Fu Panda 2? The movie itself has got nothing to do with Chinese crafts, but the intro, the flashbacks and the credits feature the unique style of Chinese shadow puppetry. I found a video of the end credits on YouTube for those who haven`t watched the movie.

As I already mentioned in my post China`s intangible Cultural Heritage, Chinese shadow puppetry has been inscribed in 2011 on the UNESCO list of List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Yesterday we had an interesting chat with Xu Qi, the apprentice of Wei JinQuan, a famous puppeteer from Huaxian (Shaanxi Province) who together with his troupe have taken Huaxian shadow puppet shows as far as Germany, the UK and France, receiving overwhelming praise.

Wei JinQuan after a performance abroad
Xu Qi, who is learning to make and manipulate the puppets at Wei JinQuan`s workshop, told us about his master and this fascinating art.

Chinese shadow puppetry is a form of theater acted by colorful silhouette figures, usually made of donkey, cow or sheep leather, accompanied by music and opera-like singing.  Manipulated by puppeteers using rods, the figures create the illusion of moving images on a translucent cloth screen illuminated from behind. Actually, contrary to what the name suggests, viewed through the white screen the puppets aren`t just shadows, but their color is bright and visible through the screen.

Wei JinQuan removing the fur from some leather

Carving the leather

After coloring the figures are dewatered
to make the colors penetrate in the leather
Performers manipulate puppets, while the other members of the troupe sing the story in an opera-like style, and play accompanying music.
The puppeteer must also memorize the songs and rhythm of more than 50 plays, some of which can last a couple of hours, in order to coordinate the movements of the puppets with the music and singing.  
A full-length play usually involves more than 60 figures, and Wei JinQuan, who is the only one in his troupe to handle the puppets, can manipulate more than 10 puppets at a time. For the troupe’s repertoire he regularly uses 100 puppet bodies onto which he can add around 400 heads of different characters.


Wei JinQuan is the leader of Huaxian’s Guang Hua Shadow Play Troupe and comes from a long line of shadow puppet players, his grandfather and father were both part of puppet troupe orchestras. 
The troupe behind the stage
Before the Cultural Revolution, when many puppets were destroyed and troupes dismantled, puppet troupes were very active in Huaxian, playing almost every day and competing with each other to perform at fairs. They used to travel from town to town to perform at weddings, funerals and other important occasions in village life. After the Cultural Revolution, only a few troupes remained, and today the three troupes remaining perform very seldom, upon request only.
Xu Qi told us that nowadays many young Chinese don`t know about the art of shadow puppetry, but it seems like its popularity is increasing in the Western Countries. Guang Hua Shadow Play Troupe was recently interviewed by BBC`s Micheal Wood, who is making a documentary about the history of China. 

Group picture with the BBC crew
Wei JinQuan also carves puppets for Jean-Luc Penso, a French puppeteer, who studied with him for several months before starting his own troupe in France.
Wei JinQuan welcomes in his home anybody willing to learn the art of shadow puppetry, and is more than happy to teach them! If you are interested we can help you to get in touch with him.

Learning to manipulate the puppets
Now forget about Kung Fu Panda and watch Zhang Yimou’s touching movie “To Live” to see how the life of a family, where the father happens to be member of a shadow puppetry troupe, was like between the 1940`s and 1970`s.
Xu Qi told us that Pan Jingle, 83 years old member of Guang Hua Shadow Play Troupe, was the one who dubbed the shadow play scenes in the movie. One more reason to watch this movie!

In another post I will explain more in detail how the puppets are made and I will introduce Wang Tianwen, the inheritor of the national intangible cultural heritage praised as " No.1 in Carving of Shadow Figure". 

All the pictures in this post are a courtesy of Xu Qi.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Trip to Suzhou - part 2 - Taohuawu New Year woodprints

As I anticipated in the first part of the post about the trip to Suzhou, one of our destinations was the workshop of Gu ZhiJun, a multiple award-winning artist who merges ancient techniques with modern design.
Gu ZhiJun workshop is located in Taohuawu, literally the Peach Flower Port, a district in Suzhou that produced many folk artists, and is one of the two best-known homes of Chinese New Year pictures. 

The entrance to the workshop

Taohuawu New Year woodprints, listed as one of China's national intangible cultural heritages in 2006, developed into a folk artistic style during the Ming Dynasty in a workshop on Suzhou's Taohuawu Street, which gave the style its name, and reached their peak during the Qing Dynasty.
Although this fact is almost unknown (I admit it was a surprise for me as well) Taohuawu New Year woodprints largely influenced Japanese ukiyo-e during Edo period, which then affected Western Post-Impressionism, contributing this way to the history of global art.

In earlier times almost every family hung Taohuawu New Year woodprints on the door and/or on a wall on the first day of the New Year and left them there for the whole year. They were very popular because they reflected the hopes or wishes of people, and were highly decorative and inexpensive.

The designs for the paintings are rooted in traditional Chinese realist art, and themes of good fortune and happiness, manifested by deities and auspicious symbols, are dominant. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties the prints were mostly created by imagination according to legends and, later on, images from dramas, novels, became a source of inspiration.

To emphasize the celebration of the New Year the colors used in these carvings are usually strong, such as red, lemon, emerald green, shocking pink, and cobalt blue.
This is the New Year wood print we bought, it represents a tiger, and the coin-like circles have words of good fortune and happiness inscribed on them, symbolizing the hopes or wishes for the New Year. I love the bright colors and the energy that this print transmits!

The wood printing process is quite complicated, but I will try to explain it as best I can.
Step 1: The design is drawn or painted on a special thin paper and transferred to the woodblock. Next the paper is rubbed off, and only the design itself is left on the block.
Step 2: The wood is carved with a special knife with two metallic ends for cutting and carving. The complete design might not be carved into only one woodblock, especially for color printing.
Step 3: The woodblock is coated with color with an ink brush and the sheet to be printed is laid over the woodblock and rubbed with a baren.

At the workshop we had the chance to see an apprentice in the process of inking and rubbing the wood block.

Unfortunately Gu ZhiJun wasn`t in the workshop when we visited, but we are planning to go back some other time to talk with him.

Anyway, his art is very interesting. Besides producing traditional New Year paintings, he creates prints where ancient and modern times overlap, disorienting the viewer and raising a smile at the same time. 

Back to Part 1 - Trip to Suzhou

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Chinese Folk Artists on Tour in USA and Canada

Today I bumped into a really interesting news, especially for those living in Washington or Toronto.
According to an article on the Global Times from late June to mid-July, a group of 108 Chinese folk artists will tour North America as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC in the US and the China Now Festival at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, Canada.

Eight performing art programs and 16 folk handcraft art forms will be on display at the two art festivals.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival “China: Tradition and the Art of Living” will feature 120 participants among artists, dancers, craftspeople and cooks, who will share and celebrate the customs and traditions from every part of China.
Festival visitors can watch craftspeople make paper-cut designs, New Year’s prints, clay figurines, kites and sachets that are used during annual celebrations and see artists who specialize in embroidery, patchwork, batiks and porcelain.
For more information visit

Similarly, at the China Now Festival in Toronto visiting crafts artists from various parts of China will demonstrate crafts ranging from paper-cutting to sachet- and kite-making to textiles and calligraphy.
For more information you can visit the festival`s site

It`s a great chance to see so many folk artists at the same time, especially considering they come from every part of China, and even for us living here it can be hard to reach the most remote places!

If you live nearby I`d definitely recommend you to visit the festivals, and maybe after that share your opinions, pictures, etc. with me!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Shanghai Shikumen Open House Museum

Yesterday after my Chinese test (92/100!!) we were supposed to visit the sustainable market in Xintiandi, but unfortunately it was canceled due to bad weather (for some weird reason it always rains on Saturday…).
Anyway, since we were already in Xintiandi we decided to take a walk among the Shikumen houses, these old lanes are particularly charming under the rain, especially because there aren`t many people around…

The Shikumen was one of the most representative residential form in Shanghai, which reached their popularity peak from late 19th century to 1930`s. The most typical feature of Shikumen buildings is the combination of Western and Chinese architectural elements, so the general layout resembles European terrace houses, but the inside structure is typical of the residential style in South China. Shikumen means “stone gate”, and refers to the architectural focus of these houses: the front door framed in carved stone. 

These houses were the birthplace of more than 70% of Shanghai's residents in those days, but many have since been destroyed or demolished. Nowadays Shikumen architecture is fast disappearing, but in Xintiandi we can still find renovated/rebuilt Shikumen houses, and one of them has been turned into a museum which gives a glimpse into the life of an upper-middle class Chinese family living in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s.

Taking advantage of the bad weather that scared off all the tourists, we decided to visit the Shikumen Open House Museum located in a renovated Shikumen house built in the 1920s.

I found this place very fascinating, all the articles on display are all genuine 1920s or 1930s memorabilia sourced in the Shikumen alleys. I also think that part of its charm is that each room looks as if the people living here had just stepped out for a while (it`s a little bit ghostly though). Particularly interesting to us were of course the handcrafted items displayed in some of the rooms.  

The kitchen

The living room

The elderly room

The master`s bedroom

Toys in the kid`s room
This isn`t a literate`s ghost,
only my husband hanging in the Tingzijian room 
On the second floor there is also a section with historical information about the family life of that time and an exhibition about the concepts of the Xintiandi renovation project and development process.

If you are in the city and have some time to kill take a look around and enjoy the old Paris of the East atmosphere.

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