Universal Human Aspirations Revealed in Secret Messages

Symbolism found in Chinese Art revealed.

Cat Shoes, 20th century. Chinese. Crepe. Gift of Miss C. F. Bieber
Cat Shoes, 20th century. Chinese. Crepe. Gift of Miss C. F. Bieber

Each culture has its own visual language that communicates wishes for good fortune and moral values. The Chinese use rich and engaging symbols in art to convey universal human aspirations: family prosperity, successful careers and longevity. Auspicious symbolism is everywhere in Chinese art and it is the centerpiece for Secret Messages: Symbol and Meaning in Chinese Art, opening at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art June 22 through Jan. 12, 2014.

“The Chinese believe their wishes will come true when they surround themselves with auspicious images and symbols that bring good fortune to the owner,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, Director of the Nelson-Atkins. “Such images were widely used to decorate gifts for celebrating important occasions like birthdays, weddings, promotions and festivals. Today, secret meanings continue to pervade Chinese art.”

The exhibition is divided into segments that focus on overarching themes of family, longevity and careers. In the family section, an elegant painting of two geese symbolizes conjugal fidelity; a day lily symbolizes motherhood and children; a painting of a hundred boys symbolizes the desire for male offspring; children’s shoes themselves are a pun for harmony.

Bowl, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Chinese. Glazed porcelain with enamel decoration and gilt. Gift of the People’s Republic of China

“We will provide tools for visitors on their journey of discovery as they unlock these secret messages,” said exhibition curator Ling-En Lu, Associate Curator of Chinese Art. “Specially designed cutout laminates will allow children to find the symbolic motifs and magnifying glasses will allow them to appreciate the exquisite details.”

“What is so fascinating about this exhibition is the inventiveness of the artists who created this secret language,” said Colin Mackenzie, Senior Curator of Chinese Art. “Whether it is the imperial ‘joke’ painting by the Emperor Xuanzong or cat shoes for kids, the themes represented here, once explained, are both captivating and, often, endearing. This is an exhibition that not only offers us a unique window onto traditional Chinese culture, but also reminds us of our common humanity shared by all peoples and cultures.”

Chinese artists drew greatest inspiration from the natural world. In dancing butterflies and ripe melons, the Chinese saw innumerable offspring; in the blossoms of peonies they saw nobility and wealth. Deer could represent longevity or a successful official career, bats happiness. Nature also offered a range of more serious, ethical motifs such as the flowering plum, symbol of the incorruptible scholar alone in winter; while other fruits evoke romance. Drawn from the Nelson-Atkins’ collection of Chinese art, the works in this exhibition reveal the universal human aspirations of the traditional Chinese people and the rich artistic imagery they created.

The exhibition contains nearly 35 painted scrolls, ceramics and other objects that all contain hidden messages. The exhibition will also include a website component that will allow visitors world-wide access to this fascinating world.

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

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