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|Symbols of Love
by Kate Hunt
|If you are tired of exchanging the same old presents on Feb. 14, why not add a little Oriental spice to your loved one's Valentine's gift and go Chinese? China's artistic heritage is full of emblems symbolizing love -- some of them rather risqué and erotic. What follows is an illustrated survey of some available emblems of romance, Chinese style.
One of the most enduring symbols of love is a pair of mandarin ducks. They mate for life and if separated pine away and die, or so duck-lovers would have us believe. Ducks are symbols of conjugal fidelity and their image permeates Chinese art. Take, for instance, a blue and white porcelain ewer from the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) decorated with the loyal couple swimming together in a lotus pond. An example from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) shows ducks carved from rootwood.
The butterfly symbolizes joy and marital happiness. And because the word for butterfly -- die -- sounds like the Mandarin word for septuagenarian, it's also an emblem of longevity. Motifs employed in Chinese art often play on such homophones. Another popular decorative motif, the fish, or yu, is a homophone for wealth and abundance. Fish suggest connubial bliss because they live in complete harmony with their watery surrounds.
The valentine design depicted on an inlaid mother-of-pearl box and cover comprises a pair of courting birds. The design first appeared on export porcelain in the 1740s but soon transferred to other materials and remained popular well into the 19th century. The box dates to the 1770s and is priced at £850 at Ben Janssens Oriental Art, 5 St James's Street Chambers, 2 Ryder Street, London.
The phoenix symbolizes the bride on her wedding day and is often embroidered on to her wedding clothes. This mythical bird is synonymous with the empress and together with the dragon represents the masculine and feminine, the yin and the yang. It only appears at times of peace and prosperity and presides over the southern quadrants of the heavens as the emblem of the sun and warmth. It is often portrayed in art gazing at a ball of fire.
Of all the flowers in Chinese art the peony is the one most associated with love. It bears an exquisite bloom and is a symbol of feminine beauty and the spring season. A luscious peony adorns an 18th-century Imperial porcelain dish painted in famille rose enamels, which sold at Sotheby's for a breathtaking £120,900.
Another enameled peony adorns the exterior of an 18th-century Imari punch bowl -- but all is not as it seems. The delights of the bowl lie hidden inside and will become clear later in the article. It is offered for sale by Spink & Son Ltd,, 5 King Street, London, for £13,000.
A group of 19th-century accessories including two silk purses, a fan case and archers ring holder are decorated with embroidered peonies on a red silk ground. They were probably made for a young woman and may have been a gift for a bride. Purses and fans were popular presents -- until the 20th century Chinese costume had no pockets. The set can be purchased from the London shop of dealer Linda Wrigglesworth, 34 Brook Street, for £1,200.
Red is an auspicious color, symbolizing summer and the south. Red textiles were often used for weddings and celebrations. Along with yellow, blue, black and white, it was one of the five colors favored by the Ming dynasty rulers. In contrast to the Western beliefs, white was associated with death.
A traditional wish to bestow on newlyweds was that the couple birth many sons. The "Hundred Boy" design is often found on bed hangings, where it encourages fertility, or on porcelain, like on a Jiajing period (1522-66) blue and white jar depicting young boys playing all manner of games. On the death of his parents the son became responsible for tending to the ancestral shrine, ensuring the generations that had gone before were properly cared for in the afterlife. Sons were also necessary for continuing the family line.
In addition to all the symbols of love, China has a wealth of erotica. A late-19th-century painting on board is one such example, detailing Chinese, Mughal and European couples locked in amorous embraces. Erotic paintings were often put in the wedding trousseau to initiate the bride in the arts of love. Love-making, given its associations with fertility, was often referred to as "playing the game of the clouds and the rain."
In 1781 the Emperor Qianlong issued an edict ordering that everything "with any suggestion of incest, or deviating in the slightest from orthodox austerity," should be removed from the extensive imperial collection. Erotic works of art were still made, although they were perhaps more often enjoyed in private, and frequently masqueraded as plain everyday objects. Take, for example, a turquoise blue glazed ceramic Kangxi (1662-1722) box. Underneath the cover, inside the box is a tiny diorama of the interior of a two-floored brothel. Two couples downstairs discuss business, the nature of which can be seen in the upstairs room. It can be your for £18,000 from Spink & Son Ltd.
Another titillating scene reveals itself on the interior of the early-18th-century Imari porcelain punch bowl mentioned earlier. The exterior is decorated with a brightly enameled design of birds and peonies, and a glance into the well rewards the onlooker with the image of a woman naked but for her jewels. A dog lies by her feet, playing the role of a peeping Tom.
The Chinese painter probably copied the image from a European print based on an Old Master painting. The piece would have been exported to Europe, although it would not have served punch in the refined drawing rooms of aristocratic ladies.
Stretching the boundaries of sexual convention, one of the most erotic acts for the Chinese lover was to smell and fondle a bound foot. "Every night," one foot lover wrote, "I smell with pleasure her foot, burying my face in its heart. It is a smell like no other." Prostitutes never willingly took off their bandages for fear of increasing the paying customer's sexual arousal.
Foot binding began between the ages of 3 and 12 years. The tight bandages that forced the toes and heel under the foot stunted growth to about 13 cm, although a length of 7 cm was achievable. Large feet were simply not considered sexy. Tiny feet were given names such as "lotus" and the "new moon." Many drawings and prints show men caressing the feet of their lovers. An 18th-century famille rose porcelain group offered by Spink & Son Ltd. for £18,000 shows a man and woman making love. Her foot is so tiny you can barely see it.
Though nowadays a man looking for a partner may place a greater premium on attributes other than foot size, if he is searching for an unusual present to delight and entertain his lover on Valentine's day he could do much worse than to explore the rich world of Chinese art.
KATE HUNT is a London-based Asian art specialist and freelance journalist.