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A Comprehensive Guide to Mythical Creatures in Chinese Paintings

Mythical Creatures in Chinese Paintings

The first time I laid my eyes on Xiang Li’s Empress collection paintings, I was completely mesmerized by the vibrant colors, the details (in the clothes, jewelry, and surrounding nature), the highly expressive faces of the empresses, and the frequent depiction of certain mythical creatures in Chinese paintings. I was curious to find out more about each aspect of these captivating theatrical paintings.

I decided to start by understanding the meaning of the mythical creatures used by Xiang Li commonly across all her paintings. My takeaways were that they hold deep cultural significance and symbolism in Chinese art and history. Understanding their symbolism will help viewers appreciate Xiang Li’s art through a new lens – the lens of what these mythical creatures represent and how they relate to the stories and characters of the Chinese Empresses.

In this blog post, I will provide a summary of Chinese symbolism of the most commonly appearing mythical creatures in Xiang Li’s paintings. This summary is based on my online research and Xiang Li’s interpretation of the use of these creatures in her paintings.

Mythical Creatures in Chinese Paintings: The Ultimate Guide

The Chinese Dragon

The dragon is the most common mythical creature in all of Xiang Li’s Empress paintings and it also holds immense significance in Chinese traditional and modern culture as can be seen from the celebration of the ‘Year of the Dragon’ all over the world this year.

Symbolism:

  • The dragon represents masculine power, royalty, good fortune, and authority
  • Throughout China’s imperial dynasties, emperors revered the dragon as a symbol of their imperial power and authority. Dragon emblems adorned carvings on stairs, walkways, furniture, and even clothing within the imperial palace. The kings and queens had the exclusive right to the use of the dragon symbol. Common people were forbidden from using items with dragon depictions during this time.
  • In Chinese legend, the Dragon Kings ruled over weather and water, controlling rainfall, rivers, and seas. Temples still exist in many Chinese villages to worship the Dragon Kings for blessings of good weather and abundant harvests.

Appearance and Composition:

  • Long, serpentine bodies resembling snakes.
  • Sharp claws are akin to hawks.
  • A combination of animal features: neck like a snake, tail like a fish, head like a camel, and claws like an eagle.
  • The ability to live at the bottom of seas, rivers, and lakes.

Artistic Representation in Chinese Watercolor Paintings:

  • Elegant and fluid brushstrokes emphasize their sinuous forms.
  • Vibrant colors symbolize luck, strength, and power.
  • Control over water elements is depicted through flowing lines and dynamic compositions.
  • Harmony with nature. Dragons often appear amidst clouds, waves, or auspicious symbols.

We have also seen dragon depictions in Western pop-culture, however, it is important to note the key differences between the Chinese dragons and the Western ones. Chinese dragons are essentially benevolent and lucky beings, unlike the fire-breathing monster-like depictions in Western tales. Another key difference is that Chinese dragons are wingless forms, unlike western dragons.

Activity for the reader

Below is an Empress painting with the dragon symbol. You can also click here to read the Empress story. Do you find any correlation between the story, the dragon symbolism explained above and the details in this painting?

The Phoenix

Fenghuang, also known as the Chinese phoenix, holds a significant place in Chinese mythology and culture. Below are some fascinating details about this mythical bird:

Symbolism

  • A mythological feminine bird that reigns over all other birds. It symbolizes feminine beauty, grace, and kindness. It is often paired with the Chinese dragon, which is traditionally considered male and signifies power and authority.
  • The Phoenix symbolizes blissful relations between husband and wife, embodying the yang and yin metaphor (representing balance, happiness, and success)
  • Its’ appearance in ancient descriptions was said to have:
    • The beak of a rooster, the face of a swallow, the forehead of a fowl, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, the hindquarters of a stag, the tail of a fish
    • Today, it is often portrayed as a composite of several birds:
      • The head of a golden pheasant, the body of a mandarin duck, the tail of a peacock, the legs of a crane, the mouth of a parrot, the wings of a swallow
  • It symbolizes celestial bodies – head as the sky, eyes as the sun, back as the moon, wings as wind, feet as Earth and tail as planets.

Artistic Representation

  • Phoenix is believed to have originated in the sun and embodies the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, yellow, and green.
  • In Chinese watercolor paintings, artists often incorporate Phoenix motifs to evoke a sense of beauty, grace, and cultural heritage.

Activity for the reader

Below is a painting with two Empresses and the Phoenix symbols. You can also click here to read the Empresses’ stories. Can you identify how many Phoenix symbols are in this painting? Do you find any correlation between the stories, the Phoenix symbolism mentioned above and the details in this painting?

The Black Swan

The swan emerges as an enigmatic symbol, entwined with Chinese history, art, and spirituality.

Symbolism

  • Grace: The swan embodies grace and elegance.
  • Love and Faithfulness: It symbolizes love and faithfulness.
  • Prosperity: Associated with prosperity, it has been revered throughout history.
  • Harmony: It represents harmony, intelligence, and elegance.
  • Transformation and Rebirth: As a power animal, it signifies transformation and rebirth.
  • Quest for Soulmate: Belief that true love can be found even after loss and tragedy.
  • Facing Challenges: The black swan embodies the ability to face challenges with grace and confidence.

Artistic Representation

  • The swan is a recurring motif in Chinese landscape paintings, adding elegance to serene scenes of nature.
  • Artists convey the essence of the swan’s grace through careful brushwork, often depicting it as an emblem of hope and purity amid tranquil settings.

In summary, the black swan in Chinese watercolor paintings intertwines beauty, symbolism, and cultural reverence, creating captivating compositions that resonate with viewers.

Activity for the reader

Below is a painting with two Empresses from the Wei dynasty. You can also click here to read their stories. Do you find any correlation between the story, the black swan symbolism explained above and the details in this painting? Can you also find the dragon and phoenix symbols interspersed in the Empresses’ outfits?

The Cranes

These creatures hold a special place in Chinese culture and art, especially in the realm of watercolor paintings.

Symbolism

  • Longevity: Cranes symbolize a long and prosperous life.
  • Wisdom: Their graceful movements evoke wisdom and insight.
  • Purity: Cranes are associated with purity and spiritual transcendence.
  • Signs of blessings from the heavens: Influenced by Taoism and Confucianism, cranes were revered as celestial beings that could navigate both earthly and celestial realms, connecting humans to the divine.
  • Good luck: The presence of cranes was believed to bring good fortune, prosperity, and harmony.

Artistic Representation

  • In Chinese watercolor paintings, cranes are often depicted alongside other symbols of longevity, such as pine trees and peaches.
  • Cranes paired with peony flowers symbolize both longevity and prosperity.
  • The intricate brushstrokes captured their essence, with outstretched wings and slender bodies evoking tranquility and reverence.

Activity for the readers

Below is an Empress painting with cranes. You can also click here to read the Empress story. Do you find any correlation between the story, the crane symbolism explained above and the details in this painting?

The Tiger

Tigers hold a very significant symbolism in traditional Chinese contexts.

Symbolism

  • In Chinese mythology, riding a tiger symbolized an extraordinary accomplishment. The ability to control or domesticate a tiger was proof of immense strength and virtuous character, traits typically found in heroes and mythical figures.
  • Tigers have long-standing connections to Taoism, which connects tigers with immortality and eternal life.
  • Tigers were symbols of protection. They were believed to drive away demons and threats.
  • The Chinese tiger represents yang energy, associated with courage, bravery, dignity, and sternness.

Artistic Representation

  • In traditional Chinese art, tigers are frequently portrayed as powerful and awe-inspiring creatures.
  • They often appear alongside other mythical beings like dragons and phoenixes, forming what is known as the Four Symbols, representing good fortune, prosperity, and protection.

Activity for the reader

Below is an Empress painting with the tiger symbol. You can also click here to read the Empress story. Do you find any correlation between the story, the tiger symbolism explained above and the details in this painting?

If you liked this article and would like to see Xiang Li’s entire collection of Empress paintings, click here.

For prints and other wearable art from this collection, visit Xiang Li’s Etsy store here.

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