The use of coloured and decorated lacquer has been used in Chinese furniture manufacturer for many centuries. Anyone who has looked at Chinese furniture and it's decoration over a number of years will be aware that there are recurrent themes that appear to run through the decoration.
Decoration on Chinese lacquered and Chinese painted furniture is very often more symbolic than mere decoration.
Here are a few Chinese design elements that are common in Chinese furniture decoration.
Some symbols are clearly used because they are Homophonus with words of other meanings.
For example , the common use of a Vase , very often filled with flowers ,on the doors of lacquered and painted cabinets, are used because the word for Vase in Chinese is a Homonym for "Ping" the word for Peace. So the use of a vase on an item of furniture conveys a sence of peace and well being.
Bats are another example . The Chinese word for bat is a Homophonus with " FU " meaning good fortune .
Very often on a item of furniture you will see a number of bats hanging upside down. Ideally 5.
The five bats, symbolise the five essential components of a fulfilled Chinese life . Happiness, longevity, wealth , love of virtue , and to die a natural death in old age.
The upside down bats convey that "fu " has arrived. This also relates to the Chinese belief that saying something ,will make that thing happen.
Dragons are a major symbol on Chinese furniture, they are the most important of all mythical creatures ,and are associated with Imperial power . They are associated with Spring, bringing rain and the control of floods . They live in water during the Winter and take to the skies in Spring , thus associated with abundant harvest , and prosperity . A high proportion of 18th & 19th C Black and Red lacquered cabinets feature a series of dragons , sometimes in a very stylised geometric form .
The dragon is also a symbol of male vigour and fertility . The Pomegranate and it's many seeds are another obvious male fertility symbol seen on antique Chinese furniture.
If we look at the black lacquered wedding cabinet in the accompanying picture , we are able to make a number of comments on the seemingly random decoration.
1. The frame surrounding the doors , are decorated with a series of very stylised dragons, where the body has been stretched into a line . A strong `male element .
The dragons are punctuated by the round symbol of the old bearded wise man "ShouLao". He is the deity of longevity , and the circular "shou" symbol is his abbreviated mark ,and brings longevity to the household.
2. The carved plank just off the ground ,below the doors is called the apron. This also incorporates a pair of dragons. These may be less obvious to you , but if you can find the head , which is between the floor and the first Shou symbol, you should be able to identify it . Right in the middle of the apron is a single hanging bat .
3. Below the doors and above the apron is a lacquered panel that has a Vase , "ping" symbol, and is flanked by books and scrolls ,which are other male scholarly symbols.
The smaller decoration to the left and right of the vase are symbols that are more related to religion ,than to peace , harmony ,and marital bliss . they appear to be an ivory tusk , and earrings . The symbols of the precious queen , and the precious elephant. These symbols are incorporated from Tibetan symbolism.
4. The Doors have a much more feminine feel to them .The use of a variety of flowers have a number of meanings. Upper left , the Plum blossom is a symbol feminine beauty ,eroticism and sensual pleasure. The pair of birds on each door, symbolise fidelity and conjugal bliss . On other cabinets this is conveyed by a pair of Mandarin ducks.
The Peonies and Magnolia symbolise wealth and high rank.
The butterfly , like the bat is associated with good fortune .
The lacquered wedding cabinet seen overall, is an expression of strong male elements , the dragon and the scholars implements , alongside feminine symbols of beauty.
These elements brought together on the lacquered cabinet help reinforce the idea of a long happy wealthy peaceful fruitful marriage .
Here are some more symbols and their meanings that you will encounter in antique Chinese furniture.
CLOUDS . suggesting clouds and rain . Representing sexual union.
Interlockin circles. Symbol of double happiness
PAIR OF FISH . fertility and conjugal bliss
PHOENIX. Feminine beauty , and the personal emblem of the Empress. Said only to appear in times of peace.
SWAZTIKA . The ten thousand symbol. Conveys the wish for immortality and abundance.
Endless knot. The interconnectivity of everything. One actions relation to another.Death and rebirth.
The LOTUS . Harmony and the early arrival of a son .Sometimes a boy carrying a lotus flower
Ruyi . A wish granting sceptre .