Chinese Patterns — Ultimate Introduction to Origin, History, Meaning, Culture, and Utilization.

Pursuing beauty and good luck has been an important part of people's lives, from neolithic tribes to today's modern society. 

 

Chinese Patterns, in daily utensils and ritual wares, in clothes and jewelry, are embodiments of traditional culture and aesthetics. 

 

In history, the utilization of patterns and colors was quite strict, when some of them would exclusively be used by certain groups of people, based on social status, occupation, gender, age, etc. 

 

Therefore, every Chinese pattern has its unique origin, story, and meaning. 

 

Today, with restrictions lifted away, however, popular patterns inherited their traditional meanings, as brilliant representatives of cultural legacy, and beautiful wishes of auspicious lives.

All photos of this page are from Dongmaiying unless noted.

Jade Article of Liangzhu Culture (around 3300 BC — 2000 BC) with Decorative Patterns — Zhejiang Museum

 

12 Imperial Patterns on Emperors' Robes

 

Originated in ancient history during the reign of King Shun, documented and formed in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), there are 12 patterns that were used for emperors' imperial robes. 

The colors and positions of those patterns changed slightly in different dynasties, however, the content and essence had been well applied and inherited in millennium years.

Most importantly, the use of these patterns was extremely strict: emperors (some dynasties included honorable prime ministers) would use 12 patterns; the lower social status, the fewer patterns one could wear. 

Sun (Ri)

Moon (Yue)

Star (Xing Cheng)

Meaning people wearing these patterns have the responsibility to illuminate and enlightening all humankind. 

Mountain (Qun Shan): Firm, Persistent, Steady.

Dragon (Long): Mysterious, Changeable, Unpredictable.

Fire (Huo): Bright and Promising. 

Colorful Flower and Bird (Hua Chong): Intelligent, Write Beautiful Articles.

Rice (Fen Mi): To Provide and Nurture.

A Special Ancient Embroidery (Fu): It looks like two bows back against each other, which means smart perceive, back away from evil, and face toward benign. 

Algae (Zao): Emerges from the filth and stays unstained, meaning characteristic of pure and noble.

Axe (Fu): To cut off negative aspects, to stay resolute and decisive.

Tiger and Monkey (Zong Yi): A pair of ancient wine vessels in sacrifice ceremony, meaning respect the ancestors. The tiger represents power and dignity; the long tail monkey symbolizes wisdom, loyalty, and filial piety. 

Hongzhi Emperor in Imperial Robe with the 12 Patterns, Painted By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

 

Patterns from Nature

 

Since the Neolithic era, people have begun to carve or paint patterns of natural elements to show respect and worship to grand nature, pray for blessing, or use them as decorations. 

 

Cloud, thunder, vortex, mountain, water wave, and their evolved patterns have been frequently used, till today, as representatives of auspiciousness, promotion, happiness, wealth, etc. 

 

The 3 Most Frequently Used Animals in History

— Fish, Dragon, and Bird.

 

Among all animal patterns, fish, bird, and dragon are the three most ancient and frequently used, in history and today. 

Fish

In the Neolithic era when primitive tribes lived and thrived near rivers, productive and vigorous fishes were their important food resources.

Pottery of Yangshao Culture (5000 BC — 3000 BC) Decorated with Fish Patterns — Taipei Museum of History

Gradually, fishes became totems of some tribes and were apotheosized as the animal that could communicate and connect the worlds of deity and human, and those well-cultivated ones would transform into dragons and fly to heaven. 

Therefore, fish has been representative of success, productivity, strength, luck, and wealth, and widely used in different aspects of Chinese culture throughout history.

Great philosopher Confucius (about 551 BC — 479 BC) named his only son "Li" (meaning carp) and with courtesy name Boyu (meaning fish).

 

Moreover, many types of fish patterns were carved or painted in cultural relics from different dynasties. 

Silver Gilt Basin of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) with Fish Patterns — Zhenjiang Museum

Dragon

Dragon or Long is a mythical creature that has been respected as the totem of Chinese people and used to be the representative of emperors and their paramount authority. 

Dragons are strong, powerful, righteous, responsible, and had been exclusively used by royals in many dynasties. 

Large numbers of different types of dragon patterns have developed through time, however, their popularity and auspicious meanings are inherited well for thousands of years.

Gold Kettle of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) Carved with Dragon Patterns — Capital Museum

Phoenix Bird

A mythical bird named Xuanniao was worshiped as the ancestor of a clan, whose descendants built the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC). 

Therefore, this mythical bird that later evolved as Phenix, was the totem of the Shang Empire. 

Phoenix Shape Jade of Queen Fu Hao of the of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) — National Museum of China

Later in history, Phenix, in Chinese named Fengniao or Fenghuang, became representative of beautiful, lucky, honor, power, queens, royal women, and brides. 

Phoenix Shape Gold Decoration of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Nanjing Museum

 

Mythical Creatures from Ancient Legends 

 

Inferior to the paramount dragons and phoenixes, there are many other auspicious and powerful mythical animals that have been widely used in Chinese patterns. 

 

Click to read more about Mythical Creatures in Chinese Mythology

 

Animals from Ancient Chinese Astrology

 

In ancient Chinese astrology, stars in the sky are divided into some groups based on their locations: Three Enclosures, Four Symbols, and Twenty-eight Lunar Mansions.

 

Combined with Yin-Yang and Five Elements Theory, every symbol and mansion has assigned a beautiful name, a deity, and an auspicious animal to guard.

 

Click to read more about ancient Chinese Astrology and Constellation

The Earliest Artifact (Lacquer Suitcase) with the Entire Twenty-eight Lunar Mansions' names, Unearthed from Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (about 477 BC — 433 BC) — Hubei Museum

Among those astrological animals, the four mythical creatures guarding the Four Symbols and represent the four seasons are most popular: Azure Dragon in East represents spring, Vermillion Bird in South as summer, White Tiger in West symbolizes autumn, and Black Tortoise in North as winter.

Azure Dragon

Vermillion Bird

White Tiger

Black Tortoise

Eaves Tiles of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) — Shanghai Museum

 

Zodiac Animals

 

Chinese Zodiac Signs, formed no later than the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC),  includes 12 animals that are used to represent the 12 Earthly Branches or Terrestrial Branches to record years, months, and hours. 

 

Based on one's birthday, every person has a zodiac animal, as well as some beneficial or incompatible signs.  

 

Hence, these 12 zodiac animals, including Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig, have been popular elements in Chinese patterns.

 

Click to read more fun facts about Chinese Zodiac Signs 

12 Zodiac Animals Carved on Copper Mirror of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Luoyang Museum

 

Lucky Animals with Auspicious Meanings

 

Besides mythical, astrological, and zodiac series, there are some other lucky animals that are frequently used by civilians as traditional Chinese patterns. 

  • Red-crowned Crane — Symbol of longevity and high-ranking officials.

  • Deer — Deer was believed as the ride of a human when someone became immortals; it also has the same pronunciation "Lu" as "happiness" in Chinese.

 

  • Elephant — The elephant in Chinese is Xiang, which has a similar sound to the auspicious, and powerful chancellor.  

  • Cicada — Cicadas live in high places and eat plant sap, and has been used as a popular pattern to represent nobility, purity, and clean diets.

  • Mandarin Duck — Always show up in pairs, Mandarin Duck or Yuanyang has been representative of sweet couple and eternal love in Chinese culture for millennia. 

  • Magpie — Believed the bird that can report lucky messages, whose sounds are quite welcome in China. 

 

Beautiful Symbolic Floras — Twined Branches and Elegant Flowers

 

Flora is an important section in traditional Chinese patterns, including beautiful flowers that are used to represent 12 months in the Chinese Calendar, plants with auspicious pronunciations or meanings, and continuously twined branches and flowers that symbolize endless happiness and prosperity.

 

Auspicious Chinese Characters

Eaves Tiles of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) Decorated With Characters "Le Wei Yang", Meaning Eternal Happiness — Fujian Museum

 

Religious Patterns

 

In Taoism and Buddhism religion, magical implements used in practices (usually chose eight objects as a group) are important Chinese patterns.

 

Food and Stylish Objects

Grain Patterns Decorated on Dragon Shaped Jade of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC)  — Hubei Museum

 

Human Figurines from Mythology, History, Literature, and Daily Lives

Silver Gilt Hairpin of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) Decorated with Figurines of Happily Married Couples  — Ningguo Museum

 

Combination of Basic Patterns — Homophony and Meaning

 

Besides basic elements, the combination of different patterns, based on meanings and pronunciations, to form a new lucky picture, has been a widely welcomed method. 

 

Composed meaning, for example, the patterns of dragons, mountains, and waves together symbolize solid reigns. 

Composed patterns of dragons, mountains, and waves on Imperial Fabric of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), Photo from Xiefangzhuren Dong Jin. 

Composed homophony usually takes selected patterns' names to form a new lucky phrase.

Porcelain Bowl of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) with Patterns of Sparrow, Deer, Bee, and Monkey, Whose Pronunciations Homophonicly Represent Nobility and Wealth — Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

 

Hierarchical Clothing Patterns of Officials in History

 

During Emperor Wu Zetian's reign (690 — 705), officials started to embroider animal patterns on robes under the emperor's command. Based on hierarchies, civil officials use birds, and military officials wear beasts patterns. 

After Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) was established, the founding emperor Zhu Yuanzhang officially set the utilization of animal patterns as a national rule, which was also followed by the next Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912).

Civil officials' animal patterns on clothes (or Buzi in Chinese) of Qing Dynasty ranking from high to low:

Military officials' animal patterns on clothes (or Buzi in Chinese) of Qing Dynasty ranking from high to low:

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