Mythical Animals as Symbols in Chinese Art 

Whether imaginary or real, animals are a recurring decorative and symbolic element of ancient Chinese art. Animal symbols contain a wealth of meaning in both social and religious contexts. Various animal forms have multiple psychological meanings and their powerful symbolism taps into the unconscious realm.

The rich and varied animal motifs of China can be divided into three major categories, each with its own symbolic connotations: domestic animals, wild animals, and mythical beasts:

Domestic animals are indicative of conscious cooperation with nature through positive interrelationships between man and animals. Wild animals depict untamed nature and man's own untamed desires.

·         Mythical beasts exist in the realm of the imagination and are especially compelling in their graphic representation of future potential and magical, unlimited resources (Using Chinese Animal Symbols).

This Gallery presents depictions of mythical beasts in Chinese art to explore their symbolism and how they are used in art and life. The mythical beasts of China are exciting because they give access to the boundless realms of power inherent in the imagination. The five mythical creatures represented in this collection are the Taotie, the Dragon, the Phoenix, the Fu Lion-Dog, and the Bixie.


TAOTIES in this exhibition:

·         Fitting in the form of a taotie. ca. 1100-1000 B.C.E., Late Shang dynasty or Western Zhou dynasty. Bronze. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

·         Square lidded wine ewer (fangguang) with taotie, dragons, and birds. ca. 1050-975 B.C.E., Early Western Zhou dynasty. Bronze. Freer Gallery of Art.


DRAGONS in this exhibition:

·         Ritual Disc (Bi). 771 B.C.E. - 256 B.C.E., Late Warring States (475-221 B.C.E.) or early Western Han (206 B.C.E. -9 C.E). Jade (nephrite), 165.1 cm wide. Nelson-Atkins Museum.

·         ·         Painting on Silk. Western Han Dynasty (ca. 206 B.C.-ca.9 A.D.).  Hunan Provincial Museum.

·        The PHOENIXES in this exhibition:

·         Woman's informal coat (changfu) with phoenix and peonies. ca 1890-1900. Reign of Guangxu (1875-1908), Qing dynasty. Embroidery on silk satin. Royal Ontario Museum.

·         Box (He) with Dragon and Phoenix. Middle Qing dynasty, ca. 1700-1800. Red, green, and yellow lacquer on wood core with incised gold decoration (diaotian). Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


The FOO GUARDIAN LIONS in this exhibition:

·         Chinese Buddhist stele. Ca. Late 5th century, Northern Wei Dynasty. Sandstone.

Art Gallery of New South Wales.

·          Lion (fu dog). ca. 1 BCE-1 AD. Ivory with applied patina. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

   The BIXIES in this exhibition:

Funerary Sculpture of a Chimera (Bixie). Eastern Han dynasty, 25-220. Molded earthenware with traces applied decoration and paint. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.Fitting (Shi) in the Form of a Chimera (Bixie). Six Dynasties period, 317-581. Cast bronze with gilding. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.



·         "Chinese Guardian Lions." - Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. <http: / / /en /index.php /chinese_guardian_lions>.

·         "Animals in Bronze." Ancient Chinese Bronzes:. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. <http: / / /explore /china /bronzes /animals.asp>.

·         "Animals in Bronze." Ancient Chinese Bronzes:. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. <http: / / /explore /china /bronzes /animals.asp>.

·         "Taotie | Mask Motif." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. <http: / / /art /taotie>.

·         "Bixie." Learn and Talk about Chinese Legendary Creatures, Chinese Mythology. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. <http: / / /wiki /bixie>.

·         "Dragons of Fame." Taotie. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. <http: / / /fame /taotieh.htm>.

·         "Using Chinese Animal Symbols & Symbol Meaning to Enhance Your Life." Using Chinese Animal Symbols & Symbol Meaning to Enhance Your Life. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. <http: / / /infoanimalchinese.html>.

Taotie One of the more enduring animal forms in Chinese art is the taotie, a stylized monster motif with symmetrically arranged eyes, ears, horns, snout, and jaw. Despite its one face, it usually has two bodies that end in coiled tails. Early in the Bronze Age, the creature was depicted as a linear design with central eyes and spiraling extensions that are easily lost in the surrounding decoration. Over the centuries its abstracted features were presented in high relief to distinguish them from background designs. As the Shang dynasty progressed, the contour of the motif was eliminated entirely and isolated features of the taotie were raised above the patterned ground (Animals in Bronze).
According to ancient Chinese legends, Taotie was one of the nine sons of the Dragon. He spent all his time in the kitchen, crafting savory soups. Taotie once had a body, but the gods took Taotie's body away as a punishment for his extreme gluttony. The Taotie's image warns against overindulgence. Taotie symbolized greed and sensuality, and his image was often inscribed on food vessels specifically to remind people to avoid overindulgence (Dragons of Fame). The name taotie (“glutton”), which came into use by the 3rd century BCE, was probably inspired by the fact that the monster is usually portrayed as an ever-devouring beast. The function of the taotie motif has been variously interpreted: it may be totemic, protective, or an abstracted, symbolic representation of the forces of nature. The motif was most common during the Shang (18th–12th century BCE) and early Zhou (1111–c. 900 BCE) dynasties. After the early Zhou period, the taotie mask motif was supplanted by a monster that was similar but depicted with diminished power and in a more literal manner (Taotie).
Dragon Dragons provided a bountiful source of inspiration for the artistic imagination. With their horns and coiling tails, dragons are easily recognizable, even when combined with other mythical creatures such as Taotie (Animals in Bronze). • This disc, one of the most famous Chinese jade carvings in existence, is said to have come from royal tombs in the vicinity of the Zhou capital at Luoyang. The piece is astonishingly thinly sliced, yet the dragons possesses a three-dimensionality and vitality that belie the intractable material from which they were carved. Perforated discs known as bi were said to have been used in the worship of heaven, but it is likely that this piece was valued as much for its beauty as for any ritual role it possessed.
More than any other animal, the dragon is associated with China. A symbol of the emperor himself, the dragon was master of all of the elements of nature. The sinuous dragon can take many forms and can be victorious in any circumstance. In Feng Shui, the dragon is most useful in connection with fame, reputation and career. When used in the fame area of a home or in connection with a home office, an impressive representation of a dragon can be of tremendous positive benefit (Using Chinese Animal Symbols). • This was once a banner carried in the funeral procession and then laid on the innermost coffin. This banner depicts the heavenly world as the ancient people imagined, as well as their romantic view of the quest for eternal life. It is of great artistic value. With rich colors, vivid characters, ingenious space arrangement and exquisite painting techniques, this art work is crowned as the masterpiece of the painting art in the early Han Dynasty as well as the first-level cultural relic. This painting on silk reflects the funeral rite of ancient China. As the painting on silk with the richest contents, this masterpiece can be divided into the heavenly world, the human world and the underworld. Depicted in the heavenly world are a golden crow (sun), a toad (moon), a fire dragon, a winged dragon, Si Hun (the gatekeeper of the heaven), Chang E who flies to the moon, etc.; in the human realm, Xiu Zhui, the tomb’s occupant, is seen flying toward the heavenly world accompanied by three maids, while her family offers sacrifices and prayers for the safe ascent of her soul to heaven; and in the underworld we see a giant lifting the earth. Many myths and legends such as “ten suns in the sky”, “Chang E flying up to the moon”, “great fire dragon”, “flood control of Gong Gong”, “golden crow, the magical bird”, “toad in the moon”, etc., thereby endowing this painting with the title of “index of Chinese ancient myths”
Phoenix The dragon and phoenix are the most prominent and symbolically useful mythical beasts in the Chinese bestiary. The phoenix was traditionally associated with the Chinese empress, but was available for use by all women. The phoenix, an enormous winged bird, dwells immortally in the highest regions of heaven. The phoenix comes to earth to presage great events for mortals (Using Chinese Animal Symbols).
In Feng Shui, the phoenix is used as a symbol of one's greatest aspirations: the birth of a child, the accomplishment of a formidable task, the building of a lasting monument, and so forth. The phoenix can thus be depicted in areas of the home where the impetus to create or accumulate the greatest treasures in life occur. This might be social spaces, the master bedroom, music rooms, studios, libraries and home offices (Using Chinese Animal Symbols).
Fu Guardian Lion Although China is not an indigenous home for lions, the foo lion (sometimes called “lion dog”) is visible everywhere in Chinese art. Some art historians believe that the image may have arrived in China during the time of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Since lions have never been a real danger in China, their symbolic function has emphasized their protective powers. Lion statues are common guardians of temples, villages and even private homes. The lion's fearlessness is legendary. Lion images can be suitable and effective in artwork intended for entranceways and as protectors of the fame and reputation of the individual or family. The lions are traditionally carved from decorative stone, such as marble and granite or cast in bronze or iron. Because of the high cost of these materials and the labor required to produce them, private use of guardian lions was traditionally reserved for wealthy or elite families. Indeed, a traditional Symbol of a family's Wealth or social status was the placement of guardian lions in front of the family home. However, in modern Times less expensive lions, mass produced in concrete and resin, have become available and their use is therefore no longer restricted to the elite (Using Chinese Animal Symbols). • This stele is in an arched form with the Buddha seated upon a rectangular platform in the meditation posture. A pair of guardian lions stand on either side. The Buddha wears a garment, and its pleats are sharply defined with incised curved lines. A small halo of radiating petals behind the Buddha's head is encircled by a large halo enclosing six seated Buddhas backed by a flame nimbus. There are another two pairs of standing and seated Buddhas and Bodisattavas filling the spaces at the right and left. The top outer edge of the leaf-shaped slab is decorated with flame motifs rising to a pointed top. Below is a squatting dwarf who seems to be supporting the platform above his head with both hands. The figure is flanked by two small standing figures of donors on both sides. The inscription carved on the right reads: "for the deceased parents, Ren Zhenxing, whole-heartedly (in devotion of the Buddha)." The one on the left reads, "... Ren A'dao is in attendance of the Buddha ... (Characters illegible) ... respectfully ...". It is worthy of notice that the donors dress is in great contrast to that of others of later date. They wear a tight-sleeved short overcoat with trousers beneath which appears rather akin to the traditional dress of the Wei Tartars, the so-called 'Kuzhe'. It is known that, towards the end of the fifth century and the beginning of the sixth century, the early garments of the Buddhist figures introduced from India were gradually changed to become more like the costumes of the Chinese scholar-official. It is usually believed that this mode was adopted for images of the Buddhist sculptures coincident with an imperial decree of 486 which required that court officers wear the Chinese scholar-official robes.
The lions are always presented in pairs, a manifestation of yin and yang, the female representing yin and the male yang. The male lion has its Right front paw on an embroidered ball called a "xiù qiú" (绣球), which is sometimes carved with a geometric pattern known in the West as the "Flower of Life" The female is essentially identical, but has a cub under the closer (left) paw to the male, representing the cycle of Life. Symbolically, the female fu lion protects those dwelling inside, while the male guards the structure. Sometimes the female has her mouth closed, and the male open. This symbolizes the enunciation of the sacred word "om" (Chinese Guardian Lions).
Bixie Tianlu (heavenly emolument) and Bixie (evil dispeller) are two Chinese mythological animals that herald in good fortune and keep evil at bay. Both look like a lion except for their wings--the one with only one horn on his head is Tianlu and the one with two horns is Bixie (Bixie).
During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. -220 A.D.), the images of both animals were for ornamentation purposes. Sculptures of them were placed in front of tombs to suggest the dignity and power and authority the deceased enjoyed in their lifetime. As symbols of bravery and immunity to evil, the two animals are meant for those aspiring to ascend to heaven to ride on. Images of tianlu and Bixie were inscribed, embroidered or carved on fabrics, army banners, bands and hooks, or the handles of seals and bells in ancient times (Bixie).
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