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  • Writer's pictureCherie Fehrman

Jade's Secret Language

Copyrighted Cherie Fehrman. 2022. All rights reserved.

A particularly charming aspect of jade renderings is the hidden meaning in the carvings. Jade carvings are often symbolic puns on spoken Chinese. Bats, for example, are a symbol of happiness or blessings because the spoken syllable for bat (fu) sounds the same as that of blessing. Bats are often shown upside down because the Chinese word dao (upside down) is a pun on the word “arrived,” so an upside down bat implies that happiness has arrived. The swastika is a visual pun on the word wan meaning “ten thousand,” making the whole object a symbolic invocation of 10,000 blessings. The three legged toad symbolizes prosperity; the peach, longevity; and ducks, marital bliss. The variety of symbols is seemingly infinite, and trying to decipher the secret messages in old carvings is another aspect that makes jade collecting an addictive pastime.

The cryptic message in jade is called a rebus, a riddle composed of words with syllables depicted by symbols or pictures that suggest the sound of the words or syllables they represent. For example, a common rebus for blessings is the foshou or Buddha’s hand citron, a fruit which resembles Buddha’s fingers. When the Buddha’s hand citron is combined with the peach and pomegranate, it forms the motif of “the three plenties”–a wish for abundance of blessings, longevity and offspring.

In China, xi or happiness, was often represented by the magpie whose name (xi) is a pun for happiness. A magpie perched on the top of prunus branch (mei),, which stands for eyebrows, represents a rebus for “happiness up to one’s eyebrows.” Two magpies become a symbol for double happiness.

The flower that symbolizes marriage is the lotus (hehua or lianhua). He is a pun for harmony while lian is a pun for continuous, therefore, a wish for continuous harmony. The lotus is one of the few flowers whose seedpod is already present when the flower begins to bloom. To the Chinese, this excellent omen prophesied the early arrival of sons. Other symbols of marriage include the double fish, a symbol of fertility and conjugal bliss; fish and water (a rebus for “may you agree like fish and water”), and a pair of mandarin ducks, symbols of fidelity and a happy marriage. The crab (a pun for xie) holding a stalk of grain is yet another rebus for harmony.

The dragon and phoenix were originally reserved as royal symbols of marriage, but they soon came into common use. Another symbol of connubial bliss is represented by two badgers, a rebus for “double happiness.” Symbols for children include gourds and vines, or melons with butterflies.

In ancient China rank was closely associated with wealth, for once a man became an official he was set for life. Therefore it was the ardent wish of parents that their sons become scholars to pass the civil service exams with flying colors. The flower that symbolizes this wish is the tree peony–the most popular Chinese botanical motif. Because of this association the peony became known as “the flower of wealth and rank.” Peonies are often combined with magnolia and crab apple blossoms to form the auspicious phrase yutang fugui or “wealth and rank in the jade hall or wealthy establishment.” (Jade Hall was also an elegant name for the Hanlin Academy, an official bureau in China made up of the highest literary degrees.)

The wish for an abundance of riches is evident among numerous rebuses connected with wealth. Cash (coins with a square hole in the middle) or gold and silver ingots were the symbols of wealth in China. The interlocking coin motif was a popular one. A goldfish wrapped in a lotus leaf signifies hebao jinyiu or “an abundance of gold in one’s purse.” A school of goldfish swimming in a pond (tang) is a pun implying a wish for one’s household to be filled with gold and jade. Abundance leads to prosperity. Three rams (sanyang) meant prosperity in the springtime, a complicated rebus which was a very auspicious symbol of the new year. There were a number of gods of wealth in China including a seated official holding a gold ingot; a child dancing on an ingot or carrying one; or Liu Hai who teases his toad with a string of cash.

Shouying, the God of Longevity, is a benevolent old gentleman with a prominent cranium holding a staff and the peach of immortality. The peach is of paramount importance in Chinese culture and one of the most popular motifs. Cats and butterflies are also symbols of longevity. Cranes, traditionally associated with pine trees, are both motifs for longevity. When shown together they imply a wish for the bride and groom to live to a ripe old age.

The Chinese believed in combating poison with poison and created the motif of wudu or the “five poisons” represented by the viper, the spider, the toad, the centipede and the scorpion. The amount of poison generated by these creatures was thought to counteract any pernicious influence. A tiger was also thought of as a charm against evil influences.

Animals played an important role in Chinese symbolism. The water buffalo was the most important animal in Chinese agriculture. The pig represented the main source of meat in the Chinese diet, and bears were a favorite animal to use as supports to show the ability to carry great weight. With the introduction of Buddhism into China came the use of different animals native to India, where Buddhism originated. Lions (sometimes called foo dogs) guarded temples and tombs, the elephant symbolized Buddhist teachers and was often carved in jade, as were the attributes of the Eight Immortals, symbolized by the fan, the double gourd, the iron crutch, bamboo fish drum, the lotus, flower basket, sword and fly whisk, castanets and the flute. The ancient tomb jades, which were buried with the deceased to prevent decomposition of the corpses, included the cicada or locust, dragons, hydras, kylin and fish images. The cicada was particularly symbolic because the larva of this insect spends the first four years of its life underground and emerges as a complete insect, symbolizing immortality and resurrection. Even abstract patterns were used to depict clouds, rice grains, silkworms and bamboo, all important features of Chinese culture.

Time and space restrictions prevent a more detailed account of the symbolism found in jade carvings which can become very complex in their intent, but the next time you encounter an old jade carving take a moment to consider the secret message it contains.

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