Symbolism and Chinese porcelain: a spot of Animal Magic

Published 12th April 2013

Many Western eyes are aware of the symbolism suggested by the appearance of certain beasts in art there can be few who don’t see the dog as a metaphor for fidelity, or who recognise piety when a pelican is indicated or perceive temptation or something evil afoot when faced with a serpent.

 a chinese porcelain dragon dish, guangxu mark and period 1874-1908

A Chinese porcelain dragon dish, Guangxu mark and period 1874-1908 (FS18/338)

Unsurprisingly, whilst we may not be familiar with it, the Chinese also attribute similar implicit meanings to their pictorial bestiary. The Latin word draco signifies both our aforementioned serpent, but also the dragon a popular beast on Chinese porcelain. The dragon is the lord of the skies and emblematic of strength, authority and fecundity everything that one might expect from an emperor, but curiously being cloud based it is also seen as a bringer of rain, not necessarily a useful skill set for its fire breathing European counterpart. Initially a five clawed dragon represented the emperor and those with less digits individuals of lesser rank, but this rather specific detail was largely defunct by mid 16th century.

 a pair of late 19th century chinese porcelain phoenix

A pair of late 19th century Chinese porcelain phoenix (FS18/475)

The ideal stable mate for a dragon is the phoenix being emblematic of the empress, the warmth of the sun and harvest. Though something a little more confusing is a Kylin often referred to as a lion dog, as the latter suggests they have leonine characteristics and are said to tread so lightly on the ground they leave no marks. Despite having a name formed from the words qi-lin (which translates literally as he-she) they are seen as symbols of great wisdom and administration.

 detail of a canton porcelain vase showing kylins competing for a pearl

Detail of a Canton porcelain vase showing Kylins competing for a pearl (FS18/492)

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