On Mother’s Day, we celebrate and honour the mother of the family. This practice is in line with the traditional ethics held for millennia by the Chinese people, i.e. respect for the elderly and filial piety towards parents. In traditional Chinese decorative arts, lily flowers symbolise motherhood and maternal bonds with children and they figure prominently on articles created for mothers, expecting or being a birthday girl.

萱草图 祝母亲长寿


In traditional Chinese compounds, there are quarters allocated for the Lady of the House, known as the ‘North Hall’ because of its orientation. There is the practice of planting lily bulbus in the courtyard outside the North Hall when the son leaves home on a journey so that the lily flowers will comfort his mother and console her sadness while he is away.


Chenghua bowl with lily flower from the Cleveland Museum of Art
porcelain bowl with underglaze blue decoration, Chenghua period (1465 – 87), Ming dynasty, courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art
porcelain dish with lily flowers and butterflies
porcelain dish with overglaze enamelled decoration, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), location to be confirmed

Lily flowers and butterflies form a pun rebus picture known as Xuan Die Tu 萱蝶图’, meaning ‘May mother live up to a ripe old age’. ‘Xuan 萱’ comes from ‘xuan cao 萱草’,the Chinese name for ‘lily’ and‘die 耋’ , the Chinese character for ‘octogenarian’, is a pun on  ‘die 蝶’ for ‘butterfly’. It is obviously an apt theme for birthday present with a heartfelt wish.

Rock Tiger Lily Orchid hanging scroll after Zhao Wenchu
hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, Rock, Tiger Lily and Orchid, after Zhao Wenchu (赵文俶, 1595–1654), courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
hanging scroll, ink on silk, Lily and Butterflies 萱耋图, Liu Shanshou (刘善守 active 1300s), Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art


The findings and opinions in this article are written by Dr Yibin Ni.