Asian Art Symbols and Meanings  

Asian Art Symbols and Meanings

Asian Art | February 16, 2017
Asian Symbols

This stunning blue and white porcelain vase from the Qianlong period (1736- 1795) combines many popular Chinese auspicious symbols that test the knowledge of new collectors. To be sold in our March Asian Works of Art auction, we’re breaking down the meaning behind these Asian symbols. Repeated throughout the collecting category, these motifs and more are easily recognized on objects ranging from porcelain plates and vases to scrolls and snuff bottles.

Before diving into motifs on the vase below, test how much you know by taking our Asian Symbols quiz. Examples from the nearly 650 lots to be sold in our Asian Works of Art auction are featured alongside the meaning behind their decoration.

How did you do?

Let’s explore the Asian symbols that appear on this important Qianlong period vase.

Waves

The wave motif appears twice on this work, once along the rim and then again right above its base. Because the word for “tide” and “imperial court” are homonyms in Mandarin, waves symbolize the imperial court or a desire to enter the court. The wave is not the only symbol with imperial connotations. The dragon, crane and sun also have royal associations.

Asian Symbols
Asian symbols

Lotus

The most prominent symbol on this vase is the lotus scroll, which occupies the two central bands of the vase. Any collector of Asian art should be very familiar with the lotus flower. It is one of the Eight Buddist Emblems and arguably chief among them. The lotus blooms in muddy waters and emerges unblemished, therefore it represents purity, perfection and its blooming pattern is used as a metaphor for man’s journey through life to enlightenment.

Plantain Leaves

Plantain leaves are not as rich symbolically compared with the lotus or waves; however, they are a popular decorative motif in East Asian works. They are often found along borders or edges to anchor a work of art.

Asian symbols
Asian symbols

Porcelain

In addition to subject, materials hold great weight in Chinese works. For much of the early modern period, the Chinese shipped porcelain at high quantities and even higher prices to fill the European appetite for porcelain goods. Chinese artists would westernize the subject matter on porcelain meant for foreign export. It was not until the early eighteenth century that Europeans started making porcelain. While porcelain has no inherent symbolic meaning like other traditional Chinese materials such as jade or lacquer, its complex history imbues it with symbolic value.

To view more objects and symbols, visit our online catalogue or attend our preview in Chicago, which opens Thursday, March 16.

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