Swastika (the Wan character in Chinese)

卐 (万字)

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Either the clockwise swastika 卐 or the counterclockwise sauwastika 卍 is used interchangeably in Chinese decorative arts as well as in some religious contexts. Sometimes, the two opposite versions can co-occur on the same occasion without making a difference in meaning. Swastika is a very old symbol in the cultures scattered over the Eurasian continent. In China, it can be traced back to the painted pottery created in the Neolithic Majiayao 马家窑 culture existing from 3300 to 2000 BCE in the upper Yellow River region encompassing present-day eastern Gansu 甘肃, eastern Qinghai 青海, and northern Sichuan 四川 provinces. In the Eastern Han (25CE – 220CE) period, the swastika was introduced to China with Buddhist iconography and became prominent. However, it was not until the Tang Empress Wu Zetian 武则天 (684–704) made her decree that its pronunciation be ‘wan 万’ that it was accepted as a fully-fledged Chinese character, sounding the same as the number 10,000 in Chinese. Roughly speaking, it means ‘the myriad auspicious things in the universe’.

In decorative arts, swastika is often used together with various versions of the character shou 寿, the auspicious Chinese symbol bat, and the longevity symbol peach fruit. In late imperial China, swastika is widely found as the ground pattern on fabrics and on architectural or furniture elements such as paved passage ways and lattice pattern on railings, window frames, and cabinet doors.

Related Pun Picture:

May you have inexhaustible good fortune and longevity 万福万寿


Fig 1: double gourd vase with overglaze enamelled decoration, Qianlong period (1736 – 95), Sotheby’s HK 2010

Fig 2: fabric, Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912), courtesy of Palace Museum, Beijing

Fig 3: architectural drawing, heads of rafters at the Gate of Heavenly Purity, Palace Museum, Beijing

Fig 4: porcelain vase with overglaze enamelled decoration, Qianlong period (1736 – 95), Qing dynasty, courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei

Fig 5: model pattern of swastika, 19th century

Fig 6: wooden lattice (detail), the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, China

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