Chinese lucky symbols and their meanings is of great significance in the Chinese culture, not only in China, but in places where there are a majority of Chinese, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. The Chinese believe that one need to surround themselves with lucky symbols and motifs to ensure good luck in their life and career. But pursuing fortune and luck are not limited to just these symbols, as the Chinese also like to use lucky words, use auspicious patterns and carry out rituals during traditional festivals to invoke fortune and blessings.
At the centre of this is the three Gods of good fortune, namely the God of Prosperity, God of Longevity and God of Luck. Hence, the idea of luck such as these three Gods is often seen portrayed in various art pieces, paintings, sculptures, furniture, architectural decoration, clothing, restaurants, homes and buildings, and we can categorise them into animals, plants, figures, objects and symbols.
Lucky symbols in the design of animals, both real and imaginary, are the most often seen and used, and some originated from ancient mythologies and legends. Examples are:
- Dragon 龙
- Phoenix 凤凰
- Kylin 麒麟 (body of a deer, tail of a cow, a horn on its head and a body full of scales)
- Pixiu 貔貅 (a legendary creature resembling a winged lion)
There are also four mythological creatures in the Chinese constellations that represents the Four Symbols (四象), namely:
- Qinglong 東方青龙 (Azure dragon of the East)
- Baihu 西方白虎 (white tiger of the West)
- Zhuque 南方朱雀 (vermillion bird of the South)
- Xuanwu 北方玄武 (black warrior of the North, a combination of a tortoise and a snake)
The Four Symbols (Photo courtesy of Pinterest)
Each one of them represents a direction and a season, with its own characteristics and origins, and they have been, and are still very important in China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan.
Often, these symbols are depicted generously across architecture and furniture in particular. For instance, a kylin statue in front of a palace, or phoenixes embroidered onto bed curtains and quilts.
Separately, real life animals with auspicious connotations include the lion, tiger, crane, deer, bat and magpie. Animals such as the magpie and the bat represents luck due to their names – the magpie symbolises luck while the bat represents bliss, due to the fact that their names sound like luck and bliss to the Chinese. Some sea creatures such as the fish, whose name sounds like ‘surplus’ in Chinese, is often served during Chinese New Year. And sometimes, different animals are put together as a set because of their auspicious representations – for instance, dragon and phoenix are often seen at weddings, and tortoise and crane are often seen at birthday dinners, symbolising longevity.
We usually see five bats together, and they are supposed to represent luck and Love, Long Life, Good Health, Wealth and a Peaceful Death. To the Chinese, the bat is also a symbol of longevity due to their long life span, and in particular, red bats are supposed to ward off evil spirits.
Magpie (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
The magpie is often carved into the back of hand mirrors due to a story. A man was called to war, and the wife broke a mirror into half, keeping one for herself and gave the other half to her husband. She said that if one of them was unfaithful, their half of the mirror would turn into a magpie, and fly to the other spouse to tell him/her of the infidelity.
Sometimes, the magpie is pictured together with a horse, and this symbolises double the luck and joy, while a magpie pictured together with bamboo and plums symbolises luck in love and marriage, and finally, two magpies put together represent long and joyful relationships.
Carp, or 鲤鱼 in Chinese, is a symbol of luck and success in the Chinese culture. These fishes are often swimming upstream, and this, to the Chinese, is auspicious because it represents patience and determination, and that wishes will be granted after a time of setback.
The cock or rooster is a symbol of good luck to the Chinese, as they symbolises confidence, strength and advancement. This animal is also widely used in business environments, and the Chinese always give a rooster with an impressive comb to someone with a new job, as a good luck charm.
A Song Dynasty painting of carps by Liu Cai Carp (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
In Chinese culture, the dragon is considered the supreme being of all the other animals and creatures, because of its heavy symbolism of good luck, protection, prosperity and success, and because the Chinese sees the emperor as a son of the dragon. Hence, the dragon image is often depicted in palaces, temples, houses and on utensils and cutlery such as bowls, plates, spoons etc. In particular, in China’s Forbidden City, there are elements of Chinese dragons everywhere – on the roofs, stone floors, chairs, sculptures, pillars, handrails, etc.
In particular, the nine dragons are especially powerful, and are mostly used in buildings’ decorations and sculptures. Your fengshui master might have advise you to place any of them at different parts of your house for specific energy to flow. Here are the 9 dragons, courtesy of China Highlights:
Photo courtesy of China Highlights
- Bixi (赑屃) (Hybrid of turtle and dragon) — The eldest dragon, often called a turtle dragon because of its shape. It is also the most popular and commonly recognised one, strong and powerful with sharp teeth, fond of carrying heavy objects, symbolic of bearing life’s burdens. He represents long life, prosperity and strength, and is often seen on tombstones in graves and on monuments.
- Qiuniu (囚牛) (Hybrid of cow and dragon) — This yellow scaly dragon loves music, and is often found on musical instruments.
- Yazi (睚眦) (Hybrid of wolf and dragon) — This ferocious warrior has a snake belly and a leopard head, and always win in war. Often seen on the handles of swords, this is a symbol for those in the military to wear as a protector.
- Chaofeng (嘲风) (Hybrid of goat and dragon) — This creature is very adventurous and likes to climb and eat, and is often seen on four corners of rooftops and palace roof ridges.
- Pulao (蒲牢) (Hybrid of dog and dragon) — This dragon governs sounds, and likes to scream. It is often used for temple bells and handles for commanding authority.
- Chiwen (螭吻) (Hybrid of fish and dragon) — This dragon protects the water and is often used on roofs and palace ridge poles to ensure protection against fire and hazards, and natural disasters like floods. It lives in the sea and has a harsh-voice, delighting in eating sea creatures.
- Bi’an (狴犴) (Hybrid of tiger and dragon) — A protector of the law, a fair judge who likes lawsuits and often stands by prison gates. This symbol is used if people are facing legal issues.
- Suanni (狻猊) (Hybrid of lion and dragon) — This lion dragon of fire and smoke likes to sit down cross-legged, watching over his kingdom and smelling incense. It bestows wisdom and wealth, and is often depicted upon the based of Buddhas, or on Buddhist temple incense burners and seats.
- Fuxi (负屃) — This is the most Chinese dragon-like and is often seen on stone tablets.
Lucky or Golden Cat (发财猫):
The lucky cat, or golden cat, symbolises the transformation of evil into good luck and is a symbol of protection against evil. This cat is often two-sided, with one side showing a smiling cat with a raised paw to attract wealth, and the other side showing a frowning cat holding a broom, symbolising protection by sweeping away troubles and worries for you.
Plants and Fruits
Plants, flowers, trees, shrubs, herbs, and fruits have always been very popular as auspicious symbols since ancient times. This can be attributed to their shapes or growth characteristics, their names, or to ancient stories and folk tales in which they are featured. According to ‘Chinese Motifs of Good Fortune’ by Zhu Wen, the allegorical meanings can roughly be classified as:
- Invoking wealth and rank
- Desiring longevity
- Looking forward to a harmonious family
- Expressing aspirations
Peony and Gourd:
The peony and gourd are the two plants that represent wealth and rank – a peony can bring good fortune, wealth and honour to an ordinary space, while the gourd can bring prosperity.
Pine and Peach:
The pine, which to many is a symbol of endurance and vigour, and the peach are both symbols of longevity to the Chinese. A heap of peach-shaped birthday cakes can bring joy to the birthday party of an elderly person.
Pomegranate (Photo courtesy of Flickr)
Grape and Pomegranate:
As both the grape and pomegranate have a large number of seeds, the Chinese generally regard them as symbols of fertility and having a large number of descendants, which to the Chinese, is very important. As a result, these two fruits are a permanent fixture during Chinese weddings, where a pomegranate will be placed in the bride’s room, with its inside exposed, revealing its seeds. A traditional Chinese canopy bed engraved with bunches of grapes is also a common sight in bridal chambers.
Fragrant Thoroughworts (Photo courtesy of Pinterest)
Bamboo, Fragrant Thoroughworts (兰草) and Chrysanthemums:
According to the ‘Chinese Motifs of Good Fortune’, the bamboo, fragrant thoroughworts and chrysanthemums are often associated with scholars, as they subtly represent their aspirations. For example, the bamboo represents a person’s ambition and spirit, fragrant thoroughworts represents solitude and leisure, while chrysanthemums symbolises aloofness and pride. You may also find wood carved with plums, or ink stone with lotus leaves, each with their own meanings.
Finally, some plants and fruits are often combined together to yield auspicious patterns. For example, the peony yulan (magnolia) and Chinese flowering crabapple together represent “wealth and rank in harmonious, prosperous families.” Gourds and weeds together means “tens of thousands of generations of descendants.”, the orchid and lingzhi fungus symbolise “friendship between virtuous persons”, while the pine, plum and bamboo are known as the “three friends of winter.”
Other plants and flowers that carry heavy symbolism include:
- Apple – peace loving
- Apricot – beauty, spring and good fortune
- Cherry blossoms – power and beauty
- Kumquat – prosperity
- Lotus flower – enlightenment
Source: Nations Online
Since ancient times, certain figures have been associated with auspicious symbolism. These can be categorised into Buddhist and Taoist immortals, historical celebrities, and beautiful ladies and men.
Buddhist and Taoist Immortals:
Immortals such as Buddhist Arhats, the Eight Immortals, the Door God, the Three Stars of Fortune, Prosperity and Longevity all have their origins from religions of Buddhism, Taoism or Confucianism, while others come from folk tales and legends.
God of Wealth and the Door God:
The God of Wealth and the Door God are both immensely popular with the Chinese, and statues of such are often placed in homes and work places.
The Eight Immortals:
Carvings of the Eight Immortals travelling across the sea are often depicted on ridge decorations on roofs or pattern decorations on gable walls because the Chinese believe that they can bring safety and protection from evil or monsters.
The Happy Buddha, or Laughing Buddha, with his round belly and huge smile symbolises good luck, abundance and prosperity.
Other symbolic figures developed from multiple stories and folklore, and they are:
- The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove – represents expressing oneself fearlessly
- Lin Hejing – a famous poet who symbolises a noble and upright life
- Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai – the “butterfly lovers” who represents the pursuit of freedom and love
- Healthy and charming boys – represents aspirations for a large number of descendants, or wealth and good luck
Auspicious everyday objects are things that we use daily, such as for writing, making music, or as decorations in houses. They carry auspicious meanings from their names, and some are believed to ward away evil spirits. Since ancient times, decorating the home with such objects has become vastly popular, even among non-Chinese in the later years.
Sheng (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)
Pen, Silver Ingot, Sheng (a reed pipe wind instrument) & Hat:
A pen, a silver ingot, a sheng and a hat put together means that one will definitely get a promotion.
Pen, Silver Ingot & Jade Ruyi (a scepter):
A pen, a silver ingot & a jade scepter means that you will get what you wish for.
An incense burner represents no lack of successors, or that successors will appear continuously.
Musical instruments such as the Eight Sounds (eight different musical instruments made of metal, stone, string, bamboo, gourd, clay, leather and wood), together with the bell and musical stone, represents festivity, harmony and good luck.
These include the “Four Treasures of the Study”, meaning the writing brush, ink stick, paper and ink stone, which together represent praise for and admiration of a scholar with profound knowledge and high cultural attainment.
According to “Chinese Motifs of Good Fortune”, other objects also serve as auspicious symbols, and they often appeared as decoration carved on a beam or pillars, on the door of a cabinet, or in the shapes of ornamental windows.
The Eight Immortals (Photo courtesy of China Daily)
- Fangsheng (a lozenge made with a red or peach-coloured rope)
- Ancient coins
- Rhinoceros horn
- Five Kinds of Auspiciousness – five jade ritual utensils which include the bi (a round flat piece of jade with a hole), huang (a semi-circular jade pendant), gui (an elongated pointed tablet of jade), cong (a rectangular jade with round holes) and zhang (a jade tablet shaped like half a gui).
- Covert Eight Immortals – gourd of Li Tieguai, lotus flower of He Xiangu and sword of Lu Dongbin.
- Eight Auspicious Articles of Buddhism – magic conch shell, magic wheel and treasure umbrella.
Traditional symbols that are auspicious are very popular and festive, and can be classified into:
- Traditional “Five Fortunes” – these that represent longevity, affluence, good health, virtue and “natural death”
- Those that represent wishes for status and honour
- Those that reflect elegance, purity and aspiration
The related symbols of the “Five Fortunes” include:
- The Chinese character 寿 which means longevity
- The Chinese character 囍 which means festivity
- Ancient coins
- The Chinese character 福 which means happiness or fortune
Patterns of floating clouds against the sky represent an elevated status. These signs are increasingly being used in homes and furniture nowadays, though they were once exclusively seen only in imperial design.
Ice Crack, Flowers and Grasses Patterns:
Patterns of ice crack, flowers and grasses are those with a bamboo leaf shape, and they refer to elegance and nature. They are often featured in gardens, or furniture in the house of scholars or educators.
Pattern using this symbol represents continuity and endurance, and are often used as the border for floors, ceilings or partitions, or even artworks or other objects.
Finally, or as discussed above, different auspicious symbols may be combined together to result in their own auspicious connotations, such as an animal and a plant together, or a concrete object and an abstract sign, and most of them are seen in architectural structures in home and furniture or interior decoration.
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