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

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)

Sun in Chinese Pattern Culture

Moon (Yue)

Moon in Chinese Pattern Culture

Star (Xing Cheng)

Star in Chinese Pattern Culture

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

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

Mountain in Chinese Pattern Culture

Dragon (Long): Mysterious, Changeable, Unpredictable.

Dragon in Chinese Pattern Culture

Fire (Huo): Bright and Promising. 

Fire in Chinese Pattern Culture

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

Bird in Chinese Pattern Culture

Rice (Fen Mi): To Provide and Nurture.

Rice in Chinese Pattern Culture

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. 

Special Embroidery in Chinese Pattern Culture

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

Algae in Chinese Pattern Culture

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

Axe in Chinese Pattern Culture

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. 

Tiger and Monkey in Chinese Pattern Culture
Portrait of Hongzhi Emperor Zhu Youcheng, By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty

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. 

Water, Cloud, and Wind Patterns Ear Studs, Bracelet, and Necklace

Water, Cloud, and Wind Patterns Ear Studs, Bracelet, and Necklace

$79.00Price
 

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

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

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

Jinli Bookmark

Jinli Bookmark

$20.00Price

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

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

Engraving Dragon Head Hair Ornament Zan

Engraving Dragon Head Hair Ornament Zan

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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)

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)

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

Filigree Inlaying Phoenix Hair Ornament Zan

Filigree Inlaying Phoenix Hair Ornament Zan

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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