Reading Symbols in the new Chinese Gallery

Reading SymbolsAs we’ve mentioned before, our newly renovated Chinese Gallery features five thematic sections to guide you through the room, and encourage connections with similar themes in other galleries. Last time, we talked about “Status and Adornment,” and today we’re “‘Reading’ Symbols.”

Chinese art is rich in symbolism and the use of rebuses, or coded visual messages. This section illuminates how symbolism has deeply permeated Chinese art and its meaning for those who commissioned and lived with these objects. Wishes for longevity, health, happy marriage and many children, or success in important exams were conveyed through objects that were embellished with myriad symbols and visual puns. These items strongly suggest the attitudes and values of both those who gave the objects, as well as their recipients.

Double Cloisonné Vase

This vase form with two vertical vases joined by  a mythical bird standing on an animal is also known as a ‘champion vase’ (yingxiong bei) because an eagle (ying) and a bear (xiong) have a similar pronunciation with ‘hero’ (yingxiong).  The cloisonné panels on the sides of the vases are decorated with various auspicious motifs, such as rocks and chrysanthemums for longevity, and peonies and lotus for wealth and honor. When a phoenix appears together with peonies, it conveys wishes for wealth, rank and good fortune.


This large vase is decorated with a number of symbols in overglaze polychrome enamels, that when read together, convey wishes for longevity and blessings. Nine peaches (jiutao) are featured along with bats (fu as in the dish at left), sprays of nandina and lingzhi, or the fungus of immortality, in a densely layered pun to offer best wishes and hopes for a long life. The lingzhi resembles the ruyi scepter, a homophone for “ruyi” or “as you wish”. Nine (jiu) is a homophone for eternity (jiu) and fungus (lingzhi) suggests age (ling). This decorative scheme was popular in the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods and continued to be produced into the 19th century, particularly appropriate as a gift for birthdays. 

There are several more objects in this section, all with their own symbols to share. On your next visit, make time to enjoy these wonderful symbols and see if you can discover similar ones in other galleries!


Double Cloisonné Vase, Qing Dynasty (1644–1911); Qianlong Period (1736–1795), Bronze, gilt, enamel, wood, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Snukal, 1996.44.39

Vase, Qing Dynasty (1644–1911); 19th century, Porcelain, glaze, Gift to Pacific Asia Museum from Its Founding Director Professor Lennox Tierney, 2003.9.1


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