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Why do Chinese artists often paint spider in their works?

 

Are you afraid of small insects such as spiders? Why do we see this tidy dangling creature a popular motif used in traditional Chinese art? There is a secret here…

fan cover, Xi Cong Tian Jiang, from Lu Xiang Yue, courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei

喜从天降 扇面 绢本设色 陆襄钺 (ca 1800-1911) 1902年 宽 24cm 《午日锺馗画特展》 国立历史博物馆编辑委员会编辑 台北市: 国立历史博物馆, 1996, p.50, fig.39

In traditional Chinese art, pun pictures are frequently used in expressing ideas, mainly good wishes. Using spider for example, ‘zhi zhu (蜘蛛, spider)’ has a nickname of ‘xi zi (蟢子)’ or ‘xi zhu (喜蛛)’ in Chinese, meaning the ‘lucky one’ or ‘lucky spider’. Its first character ‘xi 喜(蟢)’ for ‘happiness (good luck)’ is then combined with the phrase ‘cong tian jiang (从天降)’, meaning ‘descending from the sky’. The whole phrase describing the spider’s action in the picture is to convey the meaning ‘pleasant surprise descending on you’.

illustration, Kisshō zuan kaidai : Shina fuzoku no ichi kenkyū by Nobuchika, Nozaki, Pl. 36, Tenjin: Chn̄goku Dosan Kōshi 1928

喜从天降插图,野崎誠近:《吉祥圖案解題: 支那風俗の一研究》中國土產公司, 1928,第36图

close-up, fan cover, Southern Song (1127 – 1279), courtesy of the National Palace Museum Monthly No. 107 p. 16 p.4

扇面(局部)绢本设色 南宋(1127 – 1279)The National Palace Museum Monthly No. 107 p. 16 p.4

Xi Cong Tian Jiang (喜从天降) was first used in Yuan dynasty and has since been used so frequently that it has now become a Chinese proverb.

 

porcelain dish, underglaze blue and red, Kangxi reign (1662 – 1722) D: 14 inches, courtesy of British Museum
screenshot from https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_Franks-517-, accessed on Nov 18, 2020

The British Museum has a Kangxi dish (see above) bearing this auspicious pun rebus picture. However, the curator literally describes the pictorial riddle as ‘lady dozing at garden table while spider hangs from bamboo’. An amusing good-wishes gift becomes pearls cast before swine!

 

Article written by Art Historian Dr Yibin Ni

 


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