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In Search of the Bat

已有 2574 次阅读 2017-8-25 20:24 |系统分类:图片百科| 蝙蝠, 图案, 装饰, 纹饰

In Search of the Bat

Last month I went on a trip back to China, Singapore, and Malaysia, a trip which I made with my parents. One day, when we were in the Penang Peranakan Mansion, I caught a glimpse of a wooden wardrobe with three big bats decorating its front panels. This discovery triggered a change of theme during the rest of my journey. I was so engaged in using my camera to capture bats on different artefacts that I forgot to pay attention to other aspects of these antiques. Because bats feature so much in architecture and decoration it did not take me long to photograph more than twenty of them. I found even more when I trimmed my photos after my trip. I did not realize they were there when I was taking the photos.


Figures: wood-carved and embroidered bats in Penang Peranakan Mansion

Associated with vampires or Hallowe’en, the idea of using bats to decorate a house may sound weird for a western reader unless the man has bats in the belfry! In Chinese culture, however, bats are regarded as lucky and they have become a popular auspicious symbol heavily used in arts and crafts. The very fact that Chinese characters are pictographic has an subtle impact on the cultural psychology of Chinese people. We tend to regard the character not only as a symbol denoting something but also as an avatar of the thing itself. A second fact that Chinese has a lot of homophonic characters—each character is a single syllable and each syllable corresponds to a number of different characters—has the effect that two rather different things become related just because their characters are phonetically interchangeable. Bats were destined to become an auspicious symbol when the word designer chose the character 蝠(pronounced to name it, while a homophonic character 福(has been used to signify happiness.



Figures: bats depicted on buildings and furniture

An early example of a bat image is a Shang Dynasty (1766 BC-1122 BC) jade bat pendant. It set the tradition that a single bat image usually took a downward flying position with the wings symmetrically spanned in a V or W shape. In the long history after that the images of bats have popped up from time to time.


Figures: a Shang dynasty jade bat (The National Museum of China) and a plaster downward-flying bat (Prince Gong Mansion).

The Ming (1368 AD―1644 AD) and Qing (1644 AD—1912 AD) dynasties witnessed great economic development. Accompanying it there was a trend in folk art that an artefact must have some pictures on it, and the pictures must have a certain auspicious meaning (图 picture 必 must 有 have 意 meaning,意 meaning 必 must 吉祥 auspicious). By riding on this tide bats gained unprecedented popularity. Their images appear on all kinds of artefacts and in all the possible materials such as ceramics, jade, embroidery, paper cutting, wood carving, plaster, stone, ivory, even in chestnut shell.


Figures: bats depicted on buildings and furniture

A typical bat image is composed of a head, a body, and a pair of wings which occupy a big proportion of the image. The craftsmen are not constrained by the natural appearance of bats, but devoted great effort to beautify it. The bat head is often depicted more like a dragon or a tiger head; the body an oval, a leaf, or a fish shape. The two wings are curved and are often embellished with curly grass patterns. With the passage of time the image of the bat also became more abstract. The head was finally simplified as a ruyi pattern, which itself is an auspicious symbol, while the wings were simplified as cloud patterns.

Figure. Ruyi and bat patterns

Bats are grouped with other symbols to create richer meanings. They are often flying among cloud patterns and combined with Buddhist swastikas (). One very popular pattern is the rebus of Wu Fu Peng Shou (five happiness boosting 寿 longevity) with bats circling a Chinese character of 寿. It expresses the wish that a man may enjoy five blessings and especially the blessing of healthy living. Red colored bats are regarded as especially lucky because a red bat (红 red 蝠 bat) sounds the same as most blessed (洪 flooding 福 happiness) in Chinese.



Figures: Wu Fu Peng Shou pattern and red bats

The use of bat decoration culminates in the Prince Gong Mansion (恭王府) in Beijing. It is said that the designer employed 9,999 bats to decorate the whole garden. The hill, pond, and hall were all purposely designed in the shape of a bat and they were named bat hill, bat pond, and bat hall.


Figures: bat pond and bat decoration in Prince Gong Mansion

Bats have also been absorbed into some Chinese folklore, for example the famous tale of Zhong Kui (钟馗). Zhong Kui was said to be a scholar who was deprived of his first position in the imperial exam just because of his disfigured appearance. He committed suicide and became the king of ghosts who is responsible for hunting demons. Legend mentions that when Zhong Kui chased away ghosts, he was guided by a bat. When an actor performs Zhong Kui in the Chinese opera, the face painting should bear one bat on the forehead. The outspread-wings of the hat have also been designed to have bats on them. Is the bat using its echolocation to detect evil things in the night?


Figures: Zhong Kui on painting and on stage

My quest to photograph bats continued after I came back to Bristol. I purposely visited Bristol Museum to have a look at their Chinese antique collection. I spotted five art-works with bats. They are on an ivory ruyi, on the top of a little ceramic bottle, a child’s robe, and two glass bottles.



Figures: bat decoration in Bristol Museum

Two pieces of ware drew my special attention, which somehow demonstrates the process of cultural exchange. One is a piece of a glass bottle decorated with bats which is believed was used by a Chinese Muslim. Glass-making techniques were not well developed in Chinese history and the Chinese learnt it from Persia. The other example is a set of ceramic plates for export to the Arab world. Bats and butterflies can be clearly seen on the brim. Surrounded by these patterns some Arabic characters are quite prominent. However, I have so far never seen a bat on ceramic products destined for European customers.


Figures: glass ware (Bristol Museum) and a ceramic plate set (Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia)

A bat, accidentally flying into the human visual art world, started an evolution on its own. Its image mutates into other things. Its population rises and falls in response to economic and aesthetic taste changes. It enriched its meaning as new folk tales grew up. It found new habitations as craft skills spread out and as people emigrated. It failed to survive in certain environments due to cultural pressure. With my very sensitive bat-hunting eyes trained during this quest for bats, I am more than happy to start my next bat-seeking field trip in yet another museum.


I'm very grateful to Mr. Richard Wright for commenting on and proofreading this blog.


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