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Spirit Animals

The Met will showcase nature symbolism in luxurious lacquer and silk objects from late Imperial China.

Dish with Peafowls and Peonies, Ming dynasty

Dish with Peafowls and Peonies, Ming dynasty
(1368–1644), Yongle period (1403–24), carved red lacquer.

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The Chinese Imperial court, with its endless artifices, intrigues, and rituals conducted behind high walls, may seem to have been at many removes from pristine nature. But in elite traditional Chinese culture, nature was not only something to appreciate aesthetically or to retreat to for purposes of rest and contemplation; it was also freighted with symbolic value, each animal representing important political, religious, and cultural values. So it should come as no surprise to see art objects made of two of ancient China’s favorite luxury materials, lacquer and silk, reveling in animal figures, either real—the ox, the lion, the butterfly—or mythical—the phoenix, the dragon, the unicorn.

These and more can, in fact, be seen starting October 21 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which is mining its vast Chinese art holdings to present “Spirited Creatures: Animal Representations in Chinese Silk and Lacquer” (through July 22, 2018). Curator Pengliang Lu has selected 20 textiles and 50 lacquer vessels to tell a story of the interpenetration of the human and non-human realms over a period of six centuries, from the 13th to the 19th, from the height to the twilight of dynastic China. The objects on view are drawn entirely from the Met’s permanent collection, and the show, made possible by the Joseph Hotung Fund, will be a rare treat, in that some of them have not been seen publicly for decades.

One of the earliest objects in the show, a carved red lacquer Dish with Peafowls and Peonies, dates from the Yongle period (1403–24) of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). It shows the peacock and the peahen with their bodies curved so as to harmonize with the circular form of the dish, and their tail feathers (the male’s much longer) are intertwined with the dense flowers. The peacock is not native to China and was likely brought there from the Malay peninsula. It is symbolic of imperial dignity, and starting with the accession to power of the Ming emperors, its tail feathers were used to designate courtly rank. The peony, an omen of good fortune, is considered to belong to the yang, or male, active principle in Chinese cosmology. The treatment of the flowers in this piece, in which the leaves overlap without any foreground-background distinction, is typical of the early 15th century. The overall effect of the piece, with its monochrome rich red and intricate carving, is a paradoxical union of nature and artifice.

The peacock is also the star of Medallion with Two Peacocks, a Ming-dynasty silk and metallic thread tapestry (kesi) from the 16th century. The circular form of this textile object as it exists today is reminiscent of the lacquer dish, albeit in a riot of color, with the birds blending gracefully with flowers, as well as clouds and mountains. However, it was originally square, a rank badge for a court official which was worn attached to a garment. Considering the symbolism of actual peacock tail feathers, the depiction of the animal itself on a rank badge is particularly appropriate.

Flowers and animals are shown intertwined on another striking piece in the exhibition, a Box with Chrysanthemum and Praying Mantis, also from the 16th century. This box is carved in strong relief, with the insects and flowers rendered in red lacquer while the leaves are in contrasting black lacquer.

Dragons, though not observable by naturalists in the wild, are one of the most important animals in Chinese iconography and lore, and they feature on several of the objects in “Spirited Creatures.” An example is a Sutra Box with Dragons amid Clouds from the Yongle period (1403–24), in red lacquer with incised decoration inlaid with gold and a damascened brass lock and key. This splendid object was intended to hold a handscroll of a Buddhist text. Such boxes were in use in the Imperial court but were also frequently given as diplomatic gifts, especially to Tibet, where Buddhist literature would have been appreciated. The dragon, which is considered to inhabit the sky, is a symbol of power as well as of change, and was beloved of the Chinese emperors, whose throne and robes of state were replete with dragon designs, from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) on down. The dragon was usually depicted as a snake-like quadruped, and the version with five claws was the exclusive symbol of Imperial power in the Ming and Qing (1644–1911) periods. The beautiful blue and gold Emperor’s Twelve-Symbol Festival Robe from the Qianlong period (1736–95) of the Ming Dynasty, made of silk and gold-and-silver thread embroidery on silk twill, features dragons that seem to fly in the sky amid swirling clouds.

Cousins of the dragon in the everyday world of nature can be found on another textile in the show, a Panel with the Five Poisonous Creatures from the Wanli period (1573–1620) of the Ming Dynasty, in monochrome silk gauze, a very ancient technique in China. The animals depicted—snake, centipede, scorpion, toad, and spider—are considered auspicious despite their creepy-crawly aspect, using their poisons in a protective way. Their powers are called upon during the festival of Duanwu (or the Dragon Boat festival), the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

In contrast to the Emperor’s dragon, the mythical phoenix was associated with the Empress. A Tea-Bowl Stand with Phoenixes from the Yongle period depicts the immortal, supernatural birds sharply carved into red lacquer. The bowl-like upper part is actually the holder into which a porcelain bowl is meant to be placed. The celadon green or blue-and-white coloration of the bowl would have contrasted nicely with the deep red of the lacquer.

Another popular creature in Chinese iconography is the butterfly, which is seen on a Woman’s Robe with Butterflies from the late 19th or early 20th century, the very end of the Qing Dynasty and the end of Imperial China itself. Several species of bright-winged butterflies flutter across the cherry red ground and dark sleeve bands of this magnificent silk-satin garment. Butterflies are associated with weddings and joyous celebrations in general and therefore auspicious; in Chinese its name (hudie) is a pun for “aged 70 to 80,” and so the insect is also a symbol of longevity. Educated Chinese who saw this robe would doubtless also have been reminded of the butterfly mentioned in the Zhuangzi, one of the greatest philosophical classics. In that book, dating to the Warring States period (476–221 B.C.), Zhuang Zhou writes of dreaming that he was a butterfly, “fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased.” Upon waking, the philosopher “didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou…. This is called the Transformation of Things.” In the works on display in “Animal Spirits,” viewers will certainly experience “the transformation of things.”

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: September 2017

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