KL Yong earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
1. Shuang Xi (Double Joy)
Let’s begin with one of the simplest Chinese symbols. Even if you’ve never seen this before, you’d likely be able to guess its meaning from the type of goods it is printed onto.
An amalgamation formed by the Chinese character for joy (喜, xi), the character is still read as xi, or sometimes as shuang xi. A wedding motif, Chinese newly-weds display this around their houses on wedding day as well as print it onto banquet invitation cards. The character is also often used as a decorative motif for wedding gifts.
During your China vacation, you would very likely encounter this symbol on sale in Chinese-themed shops or festive markets. In Chinese culture, there are no restrictions on buying or displaying this character outside of wedding occasions as the character doesn’t have any religious connotation. That said, you should, of course, never give anything with this symbol to someone who’s divorced or widowed. That would be considered offensive in any culture.
2. Bagua, the Chinese Trigrams
The bagua (八卦) is an arrangement of Chinese trigrams that denotes the elemental reality of the world. Most commonly associated with Taoist mysticism, bagua and similar Chinese symbols are nowadays also commonly found on many “Chinese-themed” souvenirs and decorations. An example would be training swords for Chinese Martial Arts practice.
In addition, Feng Shui, or Chinese geomancy, heavily uses the bagua as a defensive mechanism. Households and companies would display it above main entrances, this being for the purpose of deflecting negative energy known as sha qi (杀气). Generally speaking, there are no major stipulations or superstitions involving being around a bagua or carrying one. However, as they are mythical objects, you should refrain from touching those belonging to others. This, incidentally, is a common taboo for all Chinese symbols on this list.
3. Fu (Blessing)
The simplest of all Chinese symbols on this list, Fu (福) is the Chinese symbol for good blessings. Note that “blessings” in the Chinese culture and language is different from good luck or wealth, there being completely different Chinese characters for the latter two. Fu, in essence, denotes an overall positive life. One free from mishaps, illness, or conflict. In a limited way, it also implies lasting joy.
Fu is most commonly found on Chinese New Year gifts and decorations. Outside of this, it is also one of the most commonly used Chinese characters for Feng Shui objects, interior decorations, and tourist souvenirs. In the case of souvenirs, it is frequently paired with other “good-luck” objects such as gold ingots, zodiac guardian animals of the current year, jade carvings, etc. Generally, anything with Fu on it makes for an ideal gift or a Chinese holiday souvenir. After all, who wouldn’t want a blissful, joyous, and contented life?
4. Guan Gong (Chinese God of Honor)
Guan Gong (关公) is the honorific title of Guan Yu, a much-respected general from the Three Kingdoms period. The embodiment of honour and loyalty, worship of Guan Yu began as early as Sixth Century A.D. Today, Guan Yu remains widely worshipped throughout Chinese communities.
With the exception of artistic paintings, objects featuring Guan Gong inevitably have some sort of metaphysical association. Guan Gong statues are also heavily used in Chinese geomancy displays, and in Hong Kong, both policemen and underworld triad members venerate Guan Gong as the personification of (male) camaraderie.
As for buying statues of Guan Gong during your China vacation, there is nothing particularly wrong with that, unless you are religiously sensitive. Do note, though, that Chinese culture considers Guan Gong as a force of justice i.e. raw power. Thus, it is considered inappropriate, even dangerous, to give someone anything with Guan Gong represented on it.
5. Zhao Cai Jin Bao (Beckoning of Wealth)
An anagram of the Chinese characters for the phrase zhao cai jing bao (招財進寶), this Chinese symbol has the exact meaning as the phrase it is formed from. I.E. the beckoning of wealth and treasure.
One of the most frequently used Chinese symbols in decorative paper cuttings, it is especially popular during Chinese New Year festive periods. At the same time, the anagram is also often used in paintings, sculptures, and other Chinese-themed decorations. To put it in another way, zhao cai jing bao is one of the safest and most uniquely Chinese souvenirs to buy during your China vacation. This is one you will surely not go wrong with.
6. Menshen (Gods of the Door)
Nowadays, you’d only encounter menshen (门神) at the main entrances of traditional Chinese mansions and communal facilities. As their displays imply, menshen are used to ward off evil. Menshen is also always displayed as a pair, never just as one.
While worship of deities of the door in Chinese culture began as early as the Han Dynasty, most Chinese nowadays consider menshen to be Tang Dynasty generals Qin Shubao and Yuchi Gong.
Legend goes that Emperor Taizong ordered portraits of the duo to be affixed to gates, supposedly because he was tormented by nightmares brought on by his slain foes. Over time, these portraits evolved into highly popular divine protection for households and properties, with those displayed at wealthier mansions, temples, and clan houses being highly elaborate. To give an example of the latter, it is not uncommon for richer clan houses to have menshen etched and decorated in glittering metallic colours. Famous historical ones are even considered as artistic masterpieces and heavily featured on itineraries of guided Chinese tours.
7. Good Luck Knots
Knots have been popular throughout Chinese history. In recent years, their popularity further surged, thanks to them being perceived as effective geomancy charms.
When sold as souvenirs, they are frequently paired with other Chinese symbols for wealth or luck. For example, ancient coins or jade pendants. Mini gold ingots are also often suspended from an intricate Chinese knot. The latter is especially popular during Chinese New Year.
Design-wise, there’s are many types of knots, all typically made with lanyards in red or off-red colours. Regardless of design, all knots emphasize a symmetry of pattern since they represent harmony. At the same time, the intertwining of lanyards to form the knots is also a popular metaphor for relationships, be it platonic or romantic. Of note, knotting is not unique to China. Other East Asian civilisations such as Korea also have traditions of knot making. Albeit with significant design differences.
8. Chinese Peaches
This simple fruit could be utterly baffling for tourists unfamiliar with Chinese culture, especially when it isn’t paired with other Chinese symbols. Distinctive in shape and usually in shades of pink, the Chinese peach doesn’t represent abundance or harvests i.e. anything you would normally associate with food. It represents longevity.
The origin for this is the appearance of such magical peaches in Chinese folklore, in which they are said to ripen once every three thousand years and capable of imbuing immortality. In folkloric art, these peaches are frequently paired with the God of Longevity, the latter always represented as a genteel and bald elder wielding a staff. Thanks to such myths, many Chinese birthday banquets nowadays serve “peach bun” or “longevity buns” as a compulsory main course. Note that such buns are merely made to represent the mythical, life-extending peaches of heaven, none contain any fruity fillings. Don’t be too disappointed when you’re eating any during your China vacation.
9. Chinese Carps
The graceful Chinese carp is a major element in Chinese landscape designs. They are also extremely popular subjects in Chinese paintings. This popularity stems from the Chinese character for fish being a homophone of the character for excess. Both are pronounced as yu with the same intonation. During Chinese New Year, many festive gifts are decorated with lively fishes and the phrase nian nian you yu (年年有余), which means having excess/abundance every year. Outside of Chinese New Year, many Chinese also display artworks containing fishes at home or office as an aspiration for abundance. Apart from auspicious connotations, such artworks are naturally also appreciated for their tasteful designs.
Questions & Answers
Question: I have a symbol on the back of an old ceramic serving dish, would you be able to see if you might know what it means?
Answer: Unfortunately, there is no way to attached images with this Q&A function.
However, if the symbol is that of a square or circle, with words within it, usually the characters denote
1) Era the dish was made
2) Where it was made (As in the city)
3) Maker (This is rare)
© 2017 Yong Kuan Leong