Symbolism on Ming Blue and white



Decoration on ceramics besides its ornamental value, also reflects the cultural aspects of the Chinese civilisation.  Moral values, religious belief and common wishes of the literati class and common folks are clearly and ingenuously conveyed through the motifs.  Understanding the symbolism of the motifs will also help one to understand the Chinese. 


The chinese have uniquely found a way to express such ideas  in motifs on folk art. The key elements are :


Here we will explore the symbolism of motifs conveyed through some of the folk kilns (minyao) Ming Blue and white wares.


Wishes of  common folks


First we look into motifs which convey the wishes of the common folks.  The agricultural society depends on human labour to farm the land.  Hence, the  Chinese treasure plentiful male offspring. It is also of paramount importance to have sons to carry on the ancestral line.  This is reflected in decorations with infants theme.  Commonly found  is an an infant carrying a lotus. In Chinese, the word for lotus is lian.  Lian is phonetically similar to another character which means "in succession".  Hence, an infant carrying a lotus symbolises having children in succession. 


Hongzhi bowl with infants motif


Having a child who will be successful in life would be an added bonus.  On the late Ming wares, you can find decoration of an infant riding a chilin. The chilin is an auspicious mythical unicorn-like animal.  It existed during the time of Yao and shun, two wise and benevolent  mythical emperors of ancient China.  In the ensuing time of degeneration, it disappeared from the world.  Since then, chilin came to be associated with auspicious omen, virtue and illustrious offspring. Hence, chilin as a decoration is very popular and common on folk kiln porcelain wares.


Wanli Jar with infant on Chilin

Chenghua/Hongzhi plate with chilin


Other common wishes are expressed through such objects:


longevity emblematic objects such as peach, pine tree, Lingzhi fungus , shoulao (god of longevity), crane
honour/richness emblematic object peony, homophonic objects such as deer for lu (emolument)
peace homophonic object such as vase (sounds like ping for peace)
marital bliss emblematic objects  such as 2 mandarin ducks
abundance homophonic object such as fish which sounds like yu for abundance)


Wishes of Literati class


The decoration on blue and white usually depicts two extreme fate of a scholar.  A typical chinese scholar aspired to master the Confucian classics and served the society through an official career. A common motif showing success of official career is a scholar with a deer.  The deer is homophonic of lu, ie emolument.  Another shows a fish leaping out of waves which symbolises success in imperial examination.  One interesting homophonic motif shows a bee and monkey .  Bee sounds like feng which means to confer and monkey sounds like hou  which means duke.  Hence, it means ultimate career success by attaining the position of a duke.  The Kuixing, god of Literature who is worshiped for success in imperial examination can also be found on some of the vessels. 


Wanli/Tianqi bowl with official/deer

Jiajing/wanli dish illustrating rebus with bee/monkey and  deer and emblematic object pine tree


Alternatively, either out of own wish, unsuccessful attempts in imperial examination or disappointment with circumstances such as corruption of the ruling class, he may retreat to a life of cultivation of values and perfection of 4  arts, ie qin (string musical instrument), chess, calligraphy and painting which make a perfect gentleman.  On  ceramics, the decoration  usually depicts a contemplative scholar/hermit who is with nature or visiting friend with an attendant carrying his qin.  The values treasured are also depicted in emblematic objects such as lotus for purity, 3 friends of winter (ie pine, prunus and bamboo) which flourish in the winter and symbolises endurance in adversity and moral rectitude.  


Tianshun/Chenghua Bowl decorated with 3 friends of winter motif, symbols of strength in adverstiy and longevity

Honzhi bowl showing the lotus motif.  The lotus rises from mud in the pond signifies the ability of a person to resist corruption and  maintain moral purity.


Religious Symbols


Emperior Yongle and subsequent emperors till Hongzhi were Buddhist and symbols of  Buddhism were popular during the period.  Symbols of Buddhism such as sanskrit/tibetan religious script/character and 8 buddhist auspicious objects ((ie wheel,of the law, conch shell, parasol/umbrella, canopy/victory banner, lotus, jar, fish and endless knot) form important part of the repertoire of motifs.  The sanskrit/tibetan characters were commonly found on inner mouth rim on early/Mid Ming bowls and also depicted other with floral scrolls. sanksrit/Tibetan characters as main decorative element also became popular during the Mid Ming period. The eight auspicious objects are usually depicted interspersed with floral scrolls.  The auspicious objects can be rather poorly drawn and hardly recognisable.  Usually not the complete eight symbols are depicted. The meaning and significance of the symbols is multi-fold but basically they are as follows:


Another object commonly found on 15th century Ming blue and white is the Vajra.  The Vajra is a thunderbolt like object which is the emblem  of the divine force of Buddha's doctrine which shatters all false beliefs and ignorance.


Xuande/Zhengtong bowl with louts scroll and Sanskrit character

Chenghua/Hongzhi bowl with louts scroll interspersed with  buddhist auspicious objects and sanskrit characters on inner mouth rim


Jiajing who succeeded Zhengde was a Taoist who fervently sought  the elixir of longevity.  He probably died of mercury poisoning, it being  a key ingredient in the preparation of the elixir .  Since Jiajing, symbols of Taoism were popular and commonly found on Ming blue and white. The most common symbols are the 8 precious objects of the 8 immortals.  They belong to :fan (Han Zhongli), lotus (He Xiangu), sword (Lu Dongbin), flower-basket (Lan Caihe) , lotus (He Xiangu) , flute (Han Xiangzi) , gourd (Tie Guaili), castanets (musical instrument)(Chao Guojiu) and drum (Zhang Guolao).  The precious objects are magical weapons used by the 8 immortals to overcome the evil forces.  Scene of the the Taoist Penglai, ie the 3 islands of the immortals, is usually depicted by showing 3 mountains protruding from the sea of waves.