With the summer in full swing and flowers in full bloom, Libo Zhu explores the symbolism and histories behind the Chinese Lotus artefacts in our World Cultures collection.
During the recent hot weather lotus and lily flower lovers will have seen the lush display in the pond by Navigation Walk next to the River Aire. I was inspired by their beauty to search for Chinese lotus symbols in the Leeds Museums and Galleries collections.
The lotus is a key symbol in both Buddhist and Hindu faiths and the Leeds collections hold some really fine Chinese examples.
This wine pot in lotus form of pale celadon coloured jade was created in the Qing Dynasty. A lotus pod is delicately carved on the top of the lid and the spout is shaped like a wrapped lotus leaf. The handle of the pot is formed by a cluster of lotus stems, and each side of the pot has a lotus bud. On the top of the lid a tiny duck hides under a lotus flower and lotus stems. Here the lotus is a symbol of summer pleasures, of friends gathering outdoors to drink wine and recite poetry.
The Qing dynasty emperor Qianlong who reigned from 1736-1795 was a great lover of jade. The Hotan or Hetian region of Turkestan came under Chinese rule from 1760 onwards leading to the import of huge quantities of the stone, transformed by Chinese artists into a myriad of different wares that were highly fashionable. Jade and jade imitations for those who cannot afford the real thing are still a big passion for the Chinese. The Chinese believe that jade represents purity, beauty, longevity, even immortality. Many jade carvings have been found in graves or burials. They usually carry a good wish for the dead to be reincarnated.
This small early 19th century wine pot has a more secular everyday use relating to summer relaxation and conviviality. A lotus also stands out clearly on this finely carved ivory wrist rest from the mid to late 19th century. Made for the use and appreciation of a gentleman scholar it would have been displayed on the study table upright in its own stand. In use the calligrapher would rest their wrist on the plainer curved outer side, whilst writing or painting with different sizes of bamboo and hair brushes.
The lotus leaf is pictured on the inside of the wrist rest in a vivid scene that also includes shrimps, crabs, frogs and reeds. A lotus shown with two crabs and reeds has a particular meaning in Chinese. It is associated with a wish to come top in the Civil Service examinations. The association comes from a play on words… or more specifically, the meaning of particular Chinese characters.
The traditional Chinese design form is named er jia chuan lu (二甲传胪), and also known as huang jia chuan lu (黄甲传胪). Huang means the colour of yellow, jia has two meanings, one is shell and another is collectively called the level in the imperial examination, and er jia is one of the levels. Huang jia means crab, with its yellow shell. As the name of the finalists in the imperial examination would be written on yellow paper this also resonates with the pronunciation of huang jia. Therefore, crabs signify the finalists in the imperial examination. Lu has the same pronunciation with the reed, and chuan is a verb in Chinese that means to go through. Chuan lu was a ceremony to reveal the finalists in the imperial examination during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Hence, the use of crabs, reeds and lotus leaves in combination is seen as a rebus or symbol signifying good wishes to examinees. It is the type of complex symbol that scholars would have keenly appreciated.
Much more obvious in its meaning is the lotus design in this third Chinese item, a 19th century woodblock print featuring the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, Guanyin, seated on a large pink lotus flower. In Buddhism the lotus stands for innocence and purity since the flower rises from pond and river mud in the same way as Buddha himself, who was born from the earth but rose above. The lotus can signify Buddha directly, or his appearance, as it is said that pink lotus flowers bloomed everywhere he stepped. Buddhism came to China in the first century AD and by the Song Dynasty in the 10th century the symbol of the lotus was assimilated into mainstream Chinese culture. Here the lotus flower is a sign for purity, peace and harmony.
In this print Guanyin holds an extra eye in her hands in front of her belly. In Buddhism, the extra eye stands for Guanyin’s ability to see into the sufferings in the world. Many see her as especially benevolent and helpful in the conception of children. Two children accompany her, the girl on her right is usually known as the Jade Girl and the boy on her left as the Golden Boy. The Jade Girl stands on her own lotus pod.
This is the type of woodblock print that devotees could buy cheaply from the stalls at Buddhist temples. The pink lotus flower is as clearly magnificent here as the ones now in flower by Navigation Walk in Leeds.
By Libo Zhu, Museum Studies placement student from the University of Leeds.
Find out more about our World Cultures collection.