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How do Chinese combine symbols in pictorial art to increase the potency of the longevity concept

The Chinese deeply respect the elderly and consider a long existence – ideally accompanied by health and happiness – to be one of the five most important blessings (wufu 五福) in a person’s life. The most common symbols of longevity in China include personages such as the fairy Chang E 嫦娥 in the Moon Palace 月宫, the Eight Daoist Immortals 八仙, the Longevity God of the South Pole 南极仙翁, Magu 麻姑, Xiwangmu the Queen Mother of the West 西王母 and various immortals and Daoist adepts, animals such as crane 鹤, deer 鹿, and tortoise 龟, plants such as the lingzhi fungus 灵芝, the peach 桃, and the pine tree 松, and objects such as elixir of various forms 仙丹, the emblem of the Eight Daoist Immortals 暗八仙, garden rock 寿石, and the shou 寿 character. Artists skilfully combine different symbols to reinforce the potency of the longevity concept while creating myriad varieties of designs.

On the Palace Museum Song bronze mirror, there are a crane, Daoist adepts, a deer, a box of elixir on the back of the deer, and a pine tree.

bronze mirror, Song dynasty (960-1279), courtesy of Palace Museum, Beijing

 

On the Song brick-carving screen, there are a crane, immortals, and a tortoise nesting in a lotus leaf.

brick-carving screen, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), excavated from tomb of Zhang Jin in Minhang suburb, Shanghai, China

 

The following Jiajing porcelain vase from the National Palace Museum, Taipei has a cluster of longevity symbols such as peaches, cranes, deer, lingzhi fungi, pine, and the Shou character shaped out of tree branches.

porcelain double gourd vase with underglaze blue decoration, Jiajing period (1522-66), courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei

 

Another porcelain vase with the same double gourd shape in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York bears the same longevity motifs as the one above.

porcelain double gourd vase with underglaze blue decoration, Jiajing period (1522-66), courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
porcelain dish with overglaze enamelled decoration, Kangxi period (1662-1722), courtesy of Jie Rui Tang Collection
porcelain ewer with overglaze enamelled decoration, Kangxi period (1662-1722), courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York
porcelain yenyen vase with underglaze blue decoration, Kangxi period (1662-1722), courtesy of National Palace Museum, Taipei
porcelain yenyen vase with underglaze blue decoration, Kangxi period (1662-1722), courtesy of Guangdong Museum
porcelain plate with overglaze enamelled decoration, late 18th century, courtesy of National Museums Scotland
square porcelain incense burner with overglaze polychrome enamel, Wanli period (1573-1620), Ming dynasty, courtesy of National Museums Scotland
square porcelain incense burner with overglaze polychrome enamel, Wanli period (1573-1620), Ming dynasty, courtesy of National Museums Scotland

 


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