Semiotics in Ancient Chinese Art

Semiotics is a necessity for understanding societies and cultures. Linguistics, symbols, and signs are all examples of semiotics that we use and see in our everyday lives. However, not all signs and symbols are universal. A symbol needs to be learned over time and many cultures and societies come up with their signs. Art is often inspired by and depicts some sort of sign or symbol. In the art found in the East Asian culture, it is clear that there is a large influence of materiality and religion. Buddhism traveled into China from India during the Han Dynasty (150 CE.) I chose to research the influences of Buddhism and the importance of rituals in the Ancient Chinese Art Culture.

 Religion is power. It influences how a culture functions, whether that be rituals, what art they created, or countless hours of meditation, a large part of the Ancient Chinese culture was the devotion to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and deities. There are many symbols and signs found within these Buddhist statues. Their purpose also ranges from, altarpieces, a token of protection to carry during a devotee’s travels, “visual aids for meditation”, and gifts. A symbol that is often found in the iconography of Buddhism is the lotus flower, which means purity of the mind, body, and soul. The body language of the Buddhist statue also communicates different ideas as seen in the Standing Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) (figure 1), created in the 10th Century.

Standing Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) Figure 2

This piece depicts Guanyin, which is the Bodhisattva of compassion. There are many hand gestures, or mudras, found in the iconography of Buddhist figures. In this case, the Bodhisattva is holding up its right hand with an extended index finger. This is a sign of both teaching and warning in this culture. The meaning behind this gesture relates to my personal experiences because a pointer-finger in my culture can be an alternative way of telling someone what to do. Some examples are putting a finger up when a person is occupied and not ready to speak with someone or teaching a dog how to do tricks. In my culture, the pointer finger often correlates with rudeness. Therefore, I thought it was interesting that this gesture is depicted on statues of Guanyin and makes me wonder what the warning is. In the Bodhisattva’s left hand is a lotus bottle or vase which serves as a symbol of good fortune. As for its attire, the iconographies of buddha’s are shown wearing ornate jewelry head-to-toe such as crowns and necklaces. In this statute specifically, the five seated buddhas are shown on its crown and two dragons, which represent power and enlightenment are shown on its necklace. Overall, every aspect of a Buddhist figure has meaning that defines or represents an idea. This statue was most likely used in a reliquary or a shrine for devotees.

 Another Buddhist statue found in this culture was the Bodhisattva Manjusri (figure 2), created in the early 15th Century.

Bodhisattva Manjusri
Figure 2

Manjusri was one of the most worshipped Buddhist figures and he represented wisdom. An interesting aspect of this sculpture is the incorporation of the red lacquer. In Chinese culture, the color red has many different meanings but mainly serves as a marker for sacred things, especially in Tibetan Culture. In this case, it could mean warmth and comfort due to the color representing fire, or it could also mean protection. When translating the color red into my own culture, it can be related to, passion, evil, love, and power.

 This deity is in a sitting position and is holding a small sphere in his right hand and has his left middle fingers are pressed to his thumb with the pinky and index finger pointing straight-up. The meaning behind this mudra, or hand positioning, is to force out any negative energies such as sickness or evil spirits. This is interesting when looking at how not all gestures are universal. This hand pose could still relay the same message in the modern-day Buddhist culture, however, I have grown up on the belief that this gesture means “rock on!”. So it is fascinating to see the distinction between cultural signs. When looking at the Bodhisattva’s other visual aspects, the purpose of this smaller size statue was a visual aid for meditation. In comparison to the Standing Guanyin (figure 1), this statue is also depicted wearing ornate jewelry and crown and is sitting on a lotus flower.

Buddhist statues had many purposes ranging from prayer and worship to carrying around a small statue for protection and good luck. The sizes of the figures varied based on their function. Large Buddhist statues were hung on the walls of temples, whereas, medium-sized statues served as altarpieces and small statues were a way for followers to take their religion wherever they go. For something as influential as a nationwide religion, it is clear that much of the art would encompass this idea. Art during this time was not quite about self-expression, but about showing devotion to the sacred figures and ideas of Buddhism. Although there was a wide-spread production of Buddhist statues in the Ancient Chinese culture, every piece was a sentimental token that created an intimate bond between followers and their religion.

The overall importance of these statues is the devotion to the religion of Buddhism, which became one of the main focal points and subject matter in Ancient Chinese Art. The idea of creating a physical and scaled-down form of Buddhists and deities was a way to bind the relationship between followers of Buddhism and bring them closer to their religion. There is a lot of art found in America as well as all over the world that is inspired by this religion, such as lotus flowers, elephants, and buddha heads. Although I am not a follower of this religion, I greatly respect the beauty found in the representations of these sacred figures. I own a buddha head sculpture that sits in my room. I believe it represents a knowledgeable, calm, and warming figure that creates the perfect mood to make me feel at home.

These statues were created centuries ago and were of extreme importance among East Asian devotees. Presently, the same figures still attain great prestige when it comes to worshipping, meditation, and prayer. The religion of Buddhism is still practiced today and has been picked up by many different societies.

In addition to the influence of religion, the materiality of objects also holds a lot of value and meaning in Ancient Chinese Cultures. Jade is a very durable stone that has many different purposes. The value of it comes from the laborious and time-consuming process of shaping and molding this rock. This rock was also seen as sacred due to the beauty of its mystifying colors. Jade was widely prominent in Ancient Chinese culture. Due to the hard materiality of the stone, people of the ancient Chinese culture believed it was immortal and indestructible, so by owning it they, too, would feel indestructible. Additionally, the rarity of the stone and the difficult task of molding created an appeal from Aristocats. They believed the more jade you had, the higher your social stature. In a sense, this stone was a way to determine one’s level of wealth.

It was used for costume and sword accessories, as well as desk ornaments. On a deeper level, Jade was used in rituals specifically in burials and was a symbol of purity. It was believed to protect the deceased in their afterlife and slow the process of decay. However, Jade did not have enough power to preserve bodies and only served as a visually pleasing spiritual token. An example of how Jade was used in burial rituals is the ‘Jade Mask’ (figure 3), which is a collection of small objects carved from jade that resemble parts of a face.

Jade Mask
Figure 3

 These objects are then placed on a piece of silk fabric to cover the face of the deceased. An object frequently used is a cicada that is placed on the mouth. This insect was believed to represent rebirth, so it was placed on the mouth in hopes that the deceased might resurrect. This symbol is understandable because cicadas shed their old shell, which could embody the rebirth or the start of new skin. Jade was utilized in various ways in hopes of protecting loved ones in the after-life. Aristocrats and wealthier individuals were buried in Jade suits because of the appeal to its extensive construction, making them much more meaningful and unique. Although there was not a cornucopia of this treasured stone, and it was a very difficult process to mold objects, most of the art that was created during this time used the media of Jade, due to its value and significance among the Ancient Chinese culture.

China had many underlying stories, beliefs, and symbols behind each of their pieces. A small hand-help statue has many layers that come with it that are not as apparent as the overall piece. There are hidden messages within everything that we see and do. As a designer, every artistic choice has to serve a purpose and have meaning. The more hidden symbols and languages communicated in a piece, the more insightful it can be. It is interesting to compare meaningful messages that I found in East Asian Art to my own culture. However, the vast differences found show that not all signs are obvious and symbols have to be learned in order to show their meaning and value.


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