The symbolism of cranes in Chinese art January 15 2017
The ancient Chinese have always been exceptionally creative in using various living, non-living and imaginary objects to represent abstract ideas. Modern generations have gone to great lengths to ensure the continuance of such cultural ideas, educating our posterity about symbols for everything, including life, death and longevity. Among the most widely used symbols are the ones for longevity. They include the bamboo, peach, gourd, pine, deer and our favourite, the crane.
Cranes play an important role in Chinese mythology. An embodiment of longevity and peace, the crane is venerated as the prince of all feathered creatures and thus has legendary status. Throughout the imperial times, crane motifs were used on the robes of civil officials to depict their ranks. Because of its ability to fly high and over long distances, its wings were used as an amulet for protection against exhaustion.
There are four types of cranes in Chinese mythology: White, black, blue and yellow. But rather than the color, the setting and postures of the swan are more important. A crane that is shown with its wings stretched out with one leg raised stands for longevity. When it is shown under a pine tree near a spotted deer, it symbolizes prolonged life. One that is shown among peony flowers stands for prosperity and longevity while one that is shown with lotus flowers symbolizes purity and longevity. If a crane is shown flying towards the sun, it signifies a desire for social advancement. A crane that is shown perched on a rock and looking at the sun stands for an important authority who can see everything. Two cranes walking or flying together is the ultimate symbol of longevity.
Since cranes fly in the clear blue sky above the dusty earth, they are also considered symbols of cleanliness and purity. When a Taoist priest is on his deathbed, people say that he is turning into a feathered crane. Many Chinese still believe that cranes carry their spirit to heaven after they die. With such a revered and legendary status, no wonder cranes appear consistently in Chinese art and embroidery.
The depiction of cranes in Chinese art is almost entirely based on their mythological significance and symbolism. But there is a slight difference between the way they are depicted in art and embroidery. While in art they are usually shown alone, in a pair or in a group in a beautiful natural setting, like a lake or waterfall, in embroidery they may be shown with other symbols such as a lion.
One of the more popular depictions of cranes in Chinese embroidery is of a red-crested crane flying among the clouds and roses, symbolizing longevity, wisdom and nobility. Another popular depiction is a crane hovering above a deer grazing under a pine tree. Two cranes dancing on the ground or flying together are also very common. Regardless of the scenes in which cranes are depicted, their symbolism in Chinese art is always important.