Symbols of lanterns, other art objects, and selected details

As a monosyllabic tonal language Chinese gives itself to rebuses. Several layers of meanings can be associated with homophonous syllables. When used in puns they reflect commonly shared knowledge about mythology, historical events, and religious concepts prevalent in Chinese culture. They are far more than mere decoration: they represent the grammar components of an intricate iconographical language of material culture. The Identical symbols can be used to express wishes for good luck, happiness, a long life, a blessed marriage, a successful career etc. in many different media such as wood, bamboo, ivory, or lacquer carvings, porcelain, woven and embroidered silk for example. With its plethora of objects the ‘Lantern Festival’ scroll reads like a colorful encyclopedia of symbols.


Lanterns play an important role in social events and religious festivities. They light the way for guests, including the souls of the ancestors. The souls of ancestors are thought to visit their family at the occasion of the New Year’s festival. They are sent off during the Lantern Festival, which concludes the celebrations welcoming the New Year.
The Lantern Festival was an occasion on which families competed for the most exquisite or exceptional lantern. Lanterns could be made in a rich variety of shapes. One type of lantern was mounted on complicated structures made of bamboo or wood so it could roll on the ground while the light stayed upright in the middle. Some of these lanterns had rotating fixtures, which were moved by the heated ascending air. Some were shaped like human beings and represent celebrities or deities of worship. Shapes of abstract symbols or animals were equally popular for lanterns.


Today agates are still collected in Nanjing. Their Chinese name means ‘rain flower stone’ and they are said to be the flowers that were strewn by a goddess on a hill site in the southern vicinity of Nanjing. According to the legend, they transformed into agates when they fell to the ground.
Aoshan landscape lantern
This artificial landscape set up in the center of the street is called Aoshan landscape lantern. It was illuminated by hundreds of lights and was named after the Aoshan mountain. The mountain symbolizes the world and is situated on the mythological Penglai Isles, the residence of the Immortals in the Eastern Sea. The name of the landscape lantern refers to the shape of this mountain.


Banquets were en vogue in the Ming. Hosting guests in a restaurant was very popular during festivals and was an important opportunity for host and guest to fulfill social obligations. They lasted for several hours and could be highly ritualized procedures with the proper etiquette extending to the greetings between host and guests, the seating order, the number and content of courses, rituals of toasting, drinking, and praising the host for his generosity.


The two beggars who may have just asked for some food at the entrance of the restaurant are out of luck – the restaurant owner angrily chases them away. It is significant that the painter included these representatives of the many impoverished people that roamed city streets in the mid and late Ming. Though the painting captures a joyful event in flourishing Nanjing, he wanted to remind us of those not favored by luck. Due to falling prices of land many farmers had to give up their profession when they could no longer pay the ever increasing taxes. The plight of the farmers worsened when access to silver became limited and its price increased due to a slackening supply from Manila after an uprising that left many Chinese merchants dead.

Books (1)

Books and publishing were an important part of the scholarly world in Nanjing. The city was not only the national center for publishing government documents, but also a great market for philosophical and literary compositions. Plays and songbooks, instruction manuals for physician’s, artisans and shrewd housewives, pharmacopoeia, calendars, religious pamphlets, edifying stories and poems were the products of a large publishing industry. The dynamic book market developed due to technological improvements in printing and an ever increasing readership which included women.

Rare books (2)

Collecting rare books and comparing various editions was a favorite occupation for many scholars at the time. Just like bibliophiles today they loved to hunt for editions they had not had a chance to acquire at the market.

Buddhist monks

Monks were not excluded from the appreciation of antiquities and fine art. Here two monks contemplate the quality of large ceramic vessels. Possibly they consider selecting one of the vessels to adorn their temple premises.


Several layers of meaning are associated with the butterfly. The butterfly is a symbol of joy because the philosopher Zhuangzi once dreamt that he was a butterfly and enjoyed flying happily from one flower to the next. As a young student the philosopher is said to have followed a butterfly into the private garden of a district magistrate when he was a young student. The magistrate’s daughter happened to be in the garden when Zhuangzi entered. He was so charmed that he decided to work hard for permission to marry her.
The butterfly can be a symbol for beauty, especially the beauty of a woman. There are several anecdotes in which a deceased woman appears to her husband as a butterfly. Paintings that depict a butterfly in combination with a blossoming plum tree express the wish for a long life and pure beauty.

Canopy Bed

Canopy beds are platform beds with an awning covering the bed and screen panels or curtains surrounding the bed. Different textile curtains could be used according to the season to insulate this private space from the cold in winter and protected against insects in the summer. The curtains and cushions decorating the bed were usually richly adorned with auspicious symbols referring to the fertility of the young wife. During the day the curtains would be withdrawn so that the bed could be used as a sitting platform for reading, mending clothes, or working on embroidery. The bed shown here has marble panels which made it very desirable and precious. It was common that the bride brought the bed into the marriage and that it remained her possession.


Carp is pronounced li in Chinese, a pun on the character for profit or advantage. Thus the carp is used to express a wish for an advantageous position.

Child with dropped fishbowl

On this festive day the children are dressed in colorfully decorated jackets. Here they play a game that is still popular today. For a fixed price they catch tiny ornamental fish with a net made of paper. They may keep as many fish as they were able to catch until the paper tears. The little boy had been quite skillful in catching fish, but unfortunately has dropped his fishbowl. This is a twofold misfortune since he lost the fish and the bowl when clear transparent glassware was a precious possession.

Child with firecracker

Different from many popular paintings of children the ‘Lantern Festival’ scroll depicts children not in their symbolic function as a wish for progeny but as visitors to the festival. The painter has created lively scenes around the children. He paid special attention to them by depicting their festive clothes in color. The children we see enjoy watching the wrestlers, choose toys from the toy vendor, ride on their fathers back, proudly carry lanterns, play hide and seek, and try out funny masks. This boy is about to light a firecracker among the crowd. Several adults and children press their hands against their ears in anticipation and one man tries to grab the boy to prevent him from fulfilling his plan.

Chime stone

The chime stone is an emblem for sincerity, a just and upright life, as well as affluence. It is one of the eight symbols of a scholar.


The chrysanthemum symbolizes late summer and autumn in the yearly cycle and stands for generosity and retirement from office. It belongs to the four noble virtues symbolized by plants: bamboo is associated with strength, because it can bend without breaking like a hardworking official. The plum flower stands for vitality since it is the first flower that will bloom after winter. The delicate orchid symbolizes refinement, and the chrysanthemum pleasure.


Coral was an expensive luxury imported from Sri Lanka and Persia. Since it was thought to represent a tree, it was called tieshu, iron tree, a mythical tree said to grow at the bottom of the sea and flower only once in a century.


The crab is thought to have the power to repel evil since the Chinese pronunciation xie is identical with the pronunciation for evil.
This pronunciation is also similar to the word for those who have passed the first imperial examination and thus is a symbol of achievement.


The crane is a symbol for longevity and wisdom. It is said to live for more than 600 years. Cranes can appear with different colored feathers including black, yellow, white, or blue. The


Bred and raised for combat fighting crickets are emblems of courage and subject of heavy gambling. They also symbolize summer, the season when they are first heard chirping.


The Chinese pronunciation of the word deer, lu, is homophonous with the term for emolument. The deer therefore is the symbol for a successful official career. In addition it is an emblem for longevity and is here shown as it accompanies the Deity of Long Life on his travels. The deer is a symbol of longevity because it is said to be capable of finding the fungus of immortality.
The soft internal substance of deer antlers is dried, pounded into a powder, and used to make pills. Because these pills contain large quantities of lime phosphate they are an expensive medicine used to treat rickets. Dissolved in alcohol the powder is prescribed as an aphrodisiac.


In China the dragon evokes positive connotations. Ever since the Neolithic Period more than 6,000 years ago, the dragon has been a mythical animal of divine nature symbolizing strength and benevolence. It also embodies change since it is able to make itself invisible or morph its shape from a huge animal to one as small as a tiny snake. The dragon is the chief animal among the species of scaly reptiles such as fish, snakes and lizards. Its features are composed of those adapted from other species: the head reminds one of a camel, the horns resemble those of a deer, it has the scales of a carp and the claws of a hawk, and the ears look like that of a cow, though the dragon is said to be deaf.
Different kinds of dragons are said to live in different habitats: Some live in the sky, they are the most powerful kind. Others dwell in the ocean. These dragons do not have horns. A third species is said to live in marshes and mountain caves.
In many depictions two dragons playfully compete for a pearl. This pearl is interpreted in many different ways. It can symbolize wisdom or potentiality or thunder, which produces rain. The dragon is associated with the creative forces of spring and symbolizes the East.
Since the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.), the five-clawed dragon has been emblem of imperial power. It adorned imperial robes, tableware, furniture, and architecture. Dragons with four claws express the lower rank of the imperial princes. High officials of the imperial bureaucracy were only allowed to wear robes that show dragons with three claws.
While the dragon is the symbol of the emperor and the male force in nature, the phoenix stands for the empress and symbolizes the female. Their complementary qualities are expressed in many works of art.


Hand drum or taogu, sanskr. damaru, originally used in ritual music, is a rattle drum with a handle passing through the body. This drum has two balls suspended by strings from each side of the barrel; when the drum is twirled they strike against the skin covered head.
Large Drums
Drums, like the large barrel drum and the kettle drum, and gongs were used as rhythm instruments but also as signals when announcing the arrival of an official, or in funeral processions, and in warfare.


Mandarin ducks are symbols of felicity and conjugal fidelity. They are often depicted with a lotus blossom held by one duck and a lotus fruit held by its partner to symbolize the wish for marital bliss through the birth of a son. Mandarin ducks adorn cushions and quilts used in the bedroom, and they are also frequently used in the decoration of porcelain.


Elephants were native to southern China but are now extinct as a native species.
In general the elephant symbolizes sagacity and strength since together with lion, leopard, and tiger it is one of the four animals of power.
In association with Buddhism elephants became important emblems in Chinese art. The white elephant is especially revered because it is said to have entered the right side of Buddha’s mother, Maya. Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of Universal Virtue, is often shown riding an elephant. The phrase ‘riding an elephant’ is pronounced qixiang, which can stand for the expression jixiang which means happiness. The pronunciation xiang for elephant can also be exchanged for the character of ‘Prime Minister’ as a wish for an important career.


In ancient China round fans made from the leaves of a southern palm tree (pukui, Livistonia chinensis) were popular. Round fans were also made of silk, paper, and feathers. Folding fans came to China from Japan via Korea in the 10th or 11th century. Their frames were made of sandalwood, horn, bone, or ivory. They could have lacquered frames, or may be adorned with mother-of-pearl inlays. The fashion of the day dictated that fans for women have more ribs (preferably no less than 30) than fans for men (between 9 and 24). Fan is pronounced shan in Chinese, homophonous with the word for ‘good’; presenting a fan as a token of affection to a leaving guest is therefore a positive gesture.
The fan became a popular painting medium beginning in the Song dynasty (960-1279).
When Ming Emperor Yongle (r. 1403-1424) used fans as gifts to his officials they became popular as farewell presents, especially when they were decorated with a personal poetic or painted dedication. In the Ming dynasty artisans’ workshops specialized in the production of precious fans which could be made from sandalwood, lacquered wood, or ivory.
Fans were not only used for their cooling effect – important in Nanjing with its extreme summer heat-, but also served as a device for non-verbal communication. They were used to indicate exhaustion, absentmindedness, or excitement. They could also be used to hide from the gaze of others or to avoid a conversation very much like we observe among modern cell phone users.


Rice and fish form the principle staple food in China. Therefore it is no wonder that the similarity of the pronunciation for ‘fish’ and for ‘rest’ or ‘surplus’ is used to wish for abundance for many years to come. It is also a symbol of harmony for its reproductive capacity. A pair of fish symbolizes connubial bliss.
Flower Basket
As an adornment in New Year celebrations a flower basket symbolizes the wish for abundance in the coming year.


The traverse bamboo flute was the symbol of scholars and poets. As an iconographical element it is used to express melancholy and solitude.


While the partners in this demonstration may not be trained and mature enough to participate in the Super Bowl, this kind of small scale football was highly entertaining to the crowd and even caught imperial attention. A painting from the Song dynasty (960-1279) depicts an emperor practicing his balancing skills in this game.
Four corner square cap
This hat was called ‘four corner square cap’ and became a fashionable headdress for men in the Ming. It was considered to be highly elegant.


Eyewear was still a luxury commodity as increasing numbers of glasses came to China with growing coastal trade and with the advent of the Jesuits. Hangzhou became the earliest center of Chinese lens production and export in the mid-seventeenth century.
The first spectacles had arrived in China as tribute gifts from Persia.


Gongs are used in processions to chase away evil spirits. They were also used to announce the outbreak of a fire, or the arrival of an official with his entourage.


Gourds are used to keep liquid medicines. The gourd symbolizes mystery when presented as an emblem of Li Tieguai, one of the Eight Immortals, a group of famous Daoist saints. Li is often depicted with a gourd from which smoke ascends. Lanterns in the shape of a gourd are used to ward off pernicious influences. Believed to contain a magic potion, double gourds such as the one standing on the mat next to the Daoist fortune teller are often attributes of Daoist saints.


Halberd is pronounced ji in Chinese, just like the character for luck and rank. It is therefore used to symbolize the wish for good fortune and a professional career.
Hanshan: Painting of Hanshan and Shide
The two Chan (=Zen) Buddhist monks Hanshan and Shide are the paragons of friendship in Chinese and Japanese tradition. Shide is usually depicted with a broom indicating his work in the kitchen of Guoqing Monastery.
Hanshan which means ‘Cold Mountain’ is the sobriquet of a hermit and poet from the Tang Dynasty (618-709). He is said to have lived at Cold Mountain some time between the sixth and ninth century. Cold Mountain is part of the Tiantai Mountain range in Zhejiang province in southeastern China. Whenever Hanshan visited his friend Shide at Guoqing Monastery, Shide gave him some food from the kitchen. The two friends are always depicted as eccentric and joyful figures, who cared little about their outward appearance.
Today a temple near the scenic city of Suzhou is named after Hanshan.


The hare is believed to live a thousand years. After 500 years its fur turns white. Since before the Han Dynasty, people believed that a hare lives on the moon. It is employed by immortals to pound the bark of an ever-growing Cassia tree for the elixir of immortality.

Headscarf for traveling
During travel, especially on horseback, this scarf protected the traveler from dust, sand, and cold wind.


A horse symbolizes speed and perseverance. If depicted with a heavy load and a rider, this composition expresses the wish for the appointment to an official position. When a horse is shown with a monkey (pronounced hou) on its back this means that the owner of the painting may be promoted to a high ranking official position like that of a duke (hou).

Leopard and tiger skins

Different from the impression gained in many museums with exhibitions of Chinese furniture collections, tables and chairs were often adorned or covered with textiles. Upholstery was unknown except for a certain kind of matting. Therefore chairs were often draped with covers or with precious skins. The ‘Lantern Festival’ scroll shows a leopard and a tiger skin for sale in this store. We can also find skins being used as chair covers in the upstairs section of the restaurant depicted further to the left.
Leopard and Tiger symbolize strength and energy. Therefore images of both animals adorned Mandarin squares, the rank badges of military officials in the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).


The lion is not native to China but became an important emblem with the advent of Buddhism. As symbols of power lions guard the entrance of temples and later were used to protect public buildings, private mansions, and tombs. While the male lion holds a ball under one front paw, the female lion is shown protecting her cub in a similar pose.


The lotus flower is an important emblem in Buddhism. It stands for purity since it grows in muddy waters but keeps its beauty. The pronunciation is lian, which means ‘to connect’, or he which means unity; it is therefore used to symbolize harmony (he).
Mask of the God of Health and Longevity
This child tries to put on a mask of Shou, the God of Health and Longevity characterized by a very big head. The deity belongs to the trinity of star gods. The other gods are Lu, the god for affluence and high rank and Fu who represents wealth and happiness.


Monkey is a popular figure from the novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en which was based on the historical journey of the famous monk Xuanzang (602-664) to India where he collected Buddhist sutras. The clever and conniving Monkey king could transform himself into seventy-two different shapes, including animals, plants, and even strangely shaped rocks. When the monk Xuanzang rescued Monkey from captivity, he became a faithful disciple. As a result monkey and his friends escorted the monk on the dangerous travel through the desert to India.


If the narcissus blooms during the New Year festival, this is seen to indicate good fortune for the entire year.
Peach Blossom
The peach blossom is the flower of the second month. It is said to avert evil and is a symbol of longevity.


The peony is called the flower of wealth and honor (fugui hua) but also the flower of parting because it was customary to give a peony to a friend who was going away. Because of its multiple layers of petals it is a symbol of prosperity. It is also an emblem of female beauty and when depicted in company of a lotus (the marker of spring or summer), a plum flower (the winter blossom), and the chrysanthemum (an autumn flower), the peony symbolizes summer.


The pheasant was a symbol of imperial authority. Pheasants adorned the robes of the emperor and the rank badges of civil officials in the Ming and Qing dynasty. They were also kept in parks.


The phoenix is a mythical animal like the dragon. It symbolizes the empress as the counterpart to the emperor.

Pine tree

Dwarf pines are popular plants in container landscapes since the pine represents such qualities as longevity and self-discipline. Because they remain green throughout the cold season, pine tree, bamboo, and plum tree are called the three friends of winter.


Plum tree blossoms indicate that spring is coming because it is the first tree to bloom each year. Plum trees, pine trees, and bamboo are the friends of winter, since they all survive the cold.


Because of its plentiful seeds the pomegranate is a symbol of fertility. It is depicted as a lantern in paintings and as decoration on porcelain or clothing. Such portrayals were thought to bring the owner a large progeny.


The pipa is a four-stringed lute. Its name is derived from the two-finger technique of plucking the strings forward and back. This courtesan is educated in entertaining her guests by playing the pipa. Some courtesans were so skilled that they could pluck the strings while holding the instrument behind their back as we know from literary descriptions and paintings. This was a special attraction in restaurants with courtesan entertainment.


The qilin is sometimes called the Chinese unicorn although this is not quite correct since only the male unicorn has a horn. The appearance of a qilin is associated with the benevolence of a ruler. It is a symbol of virtue and happiness, longevity and successful offspring and it is described as having a most gentle nature. The qilin is one of the four mythical beasts and its body is a composition of parts from other animals: it has hooves like a horse, a tail like an ox, a deer’s body with scales in five colors and backward antlers. In the Ming and Qing dynasties a qilin adorned the rank badge of robes of high military officials but it can also be found as a decorative motif on objects made of porcelain, lacquerware and other materials as well.

Red shoes

In accordance with the latest fashion this official is wearing red shoes. Originally red shoes were worn by women. They skillfully decorated their shoes with intricate embroidery in their personal style. The auspicious color and fine decorations should emphasize the small size of their lotus feet when gazed at by men. Because of this connotation with female sexual attraction one conservative critic sharply criticized the fad of men wearing red shoes. He considered it a form of inappropriate cross-dressing. But when we carefully examine portraits of officials, Buddhist abbots, and even emperors from the late Ming, we have to consider the critics’ view as essentially neglected and therefore outdated.

Ritual Vessels

Ritual vessels made of bronze were produced with the highest quality and refinement during the first Chinese dynasties. Because of their old age and distinguished function they were highly appreciated collectibles in the Ming. Since only a limited number of these revered antique vessels still existed, they were reproduced in large numbers and even copied in materials other than bronze. As a result, there are porcelain and lacquer vessels that imitate the old shapes prominent in antiquity.


The rooster embodies the male element yang. It is associated with many virtues: the crown on its head is a sign of its literary mind. The spurs on its feet are symbols of his fearless fighting spirit. The rooster is seen as benevolent since it clucks for hens when scratching up grain. Additionally his time-telling crow is seen as a symbol of faith as well as protection against fire.

Root wood chair

As documented in paintings root wood furniture was used as early as the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE) when Buddhist monks used tables and chairs made of wood left in its organic natural shape. The rustic contorted wood was a symbol of the appreciation of natural beauty in contrast to the refined artificiality of stylish furniture. In the Ming and Qing dynasty root wood furniture was popular among collectors, scholars, and clerics alike.


These large folding screens were designed to shield parts of a room or to furnish the reception hall of a house. In the Ming screens became important status symbols and were therefore selected with great care. The painter uses the screens to create an effect that shows a ‘painting within a painting’: Some of the screens are painted with landscapes, some show flower and bird paintings, and yet others are filled with slabs of colored marble. The marble’s veins and texture also resemble a landscape painting.
In depicting screens and large lanterns the painter proves how well he mastered all different genres of Chinese painting. While the ‘Lantern Festival’ scroll itself is a painting from nature, the artist also demonstrates skill in the disciplines of painting landscapes, portraits, and flowers and birds.


Officials of high rank were transported in sedanchairs. Two runners with long bamboo sticks clear the way for the sedanchair bearers. Here the group has stopped to facilitate the conversation between their passenger and a maid who may belong to his household sent to him with a message from home.


These two gentlemen try to balance a shuttlecock in the air. The game is said to have originated in China in the fifth century and may have been the precursor of badminton and football. Other sources claim that the game originated in Greece about 2000 years ago and was brought to China via the Silk Road.
Shide (see Hanshan)

Strange Rocks

Rocks in gardens and miniature landscapes symbolize mountains, the dwelling place of immortals and deities. In container landscape compositions they can be complemented with bamboo or orchids, sweet flag or peonies. They represent the male, yang, element of the miniaturized cosmos.

String instruments and drums

String instruments render pure emotions, while drums evoke the allusion to war.
The lute, qin, was played by men and women and is appreciated for the versatility of emotions and qualities that can be expressed: Happiness and melancholy, softness and strength, elegance and subtlety come alive with the qin. Scholars were expected to be able to play the lute to soothe their mind and find concentration.
Drums, like the large barrel drum and the kettle drum, and gongs were used as rhythm instruments but also as signals announcing the arrival of an official, in funeral processions, and in warfare.

Water field Robe

Water field robe is the name for a Buddhist priests’ vestment that was composed of many squares of different colored silk. The garment received its name because this patchwork design resembled a landscape of rice paddies.
The design originated in the attempt to avoid the impression of ostentatious living. Donors who presented precious robes to monks ordered them to be made from high quality fabric. But in accordance with their rules Buddhist monks were supposed to live humbly and wear modest attire which they should collect from donations. They were expected to clean the worn clothes, mend them, and sow together the patches.
Therefore donors who wanted to honor a monk and could afford to bestow him with a precious robe had it tailored from silk patches. The result merely resembled what the regulations had intended but it became an accepted way of support for clerics.
By the Ming, waterfield robes had become a fashion among well-to-do men and women, just like the gentleman shown here scrutinizing antiques for his studio.


Wrestling is said to have been popular in China for more than 2000 years. Performances at festivals were very common and tournament competitions at festivals drew large crowds who cheered for their favorite wrestler.
Yuanxiao – dumpling restaurant
A special treat was prepared for the Lantern Festival celebration, the yuanxiao. These round dumplings are made from glutinous rice and have a salty or sweet filling. At home the dumplings are offered to family members and guests but they can also be ordered in a restaurant as depicted in the scroll. Their shape, which resembles the full moon, symbolizes family unity and completeness.

Zhong Kui

During the Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong fell ill with malaria. One night he observed in his dream how a little demon stole his favorite bamboo flute and his concubine’s perfume bag. A large demon detected the theft, caught the little demon and devoured him.
When the emperor asked him for his name, he introduced himself a Zhong Kui. Many decades earlier Zhong Kui had committed suicide by dashing his forehead on the palace steps after he learned that he had not passed the palace examination. When the emperor had heard this he honored Zhong Kui posthumously. Out of gratitude Zhong Kui, who by this time was dwelling in the netherworld, decided to protect the living from evil demons.
When the emperor woke up he was miraculously cured of his malaria. He ordered portraits of Zhong Kui to be painted which he distributed among his officials. Thus the tradition was born of hanging up Zhong Kui’s portrait on New Years eve to ward off evil spirits.