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Why Chinese Art Is Swarming with Colonies of Tiny Bats

If the bat is an animal associated with spooky stories in the West, the bat motif has a whole different connotation in China, where the creatures symbolize good luck.

A Ming dynasty bat vase at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem (photo by Allison C. Meier)

Along with black cats and witches on broomsticks, bats are among the spooky symbols that we commonly associate with Halloween. In the Western world, the toothy chiropteran has long represented a dark, sinister creature, largely due to its nocturnal habits but also because of misconceptions towards the ominous-sounding, common vampire bat. Goya famously depicted bats as evil beasts in “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (1799); Van Gogh, observing a taxidermied tropical bat, immortalized it as a powerful creature ascending from some fiery hell.

Vase with bats amid clouds (1800s), on view at the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

These perspectives differ wildly from those in East Asia, where the creatures often represent good fortune. They are particularly auspicious in China, where colonies of tiny bats have appeared, wings outstretched, on nearly every kind of common household object for centuries, serving as decorative motifs on vases, bowls and dishes, and snuff bottles. From the residences of the lower class to that of the emperor, bats flew — and still fly — everywhere.

According to Fan Zhang, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco‘s senior associate curator of Chinese Art, bat imagery can be traced as far back as the Han dynasty. The association has linguistic origins: the pronunciation of “bat” in Chinese (蝠), is “fú” — the same as that of “blessing” (福), and since the characters have not changed much overtime, the connection has endured.

“This association of bats with auspiciousness is related to the poetic idea of the sudden arrival of good fortune — like a bat suddenly flying across your field of vision at dusk,” Zhang told Hyperallergic. “It’s something to look for and something to look forward to.” A bat’s habit of hanging upside down, he added, and staying motionless, also led to it becoming a symbol of longevity .

“They almost appear to live forever or in the way an immortal might, so there’s a connection to the power of this stillness and remove from society,” Zhang said. “They’re almost super-beings from an unexplored world, associated with another mythical realm. This connection also contributed to their popularity among common folk.”

Qing dynasty gourd-shaped vase decorated with red bats, collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (photo © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)

Most collections of Chinese art will likely have at least one bat-adorned object as they really are ubiquitous motifs; the Asian Art Museum’s collection is swarming with the winged mammal. Many of these objects date to the Qing Dynasty, from a translucent snuff bottle where bats resemble black smoke, to an elegant gourd-shaped vase completely overrun with red bats. The color red was associated with abundance — again, because of pronunciation reasons — so red bats were especially emphatic harbingers of fortune.

Rather than taking on a menacing character — like they do in much of Western art — the bats’ physical forms become aesthetically pleasing patterns, floating around vines or through wispy clouds. Some of these visuals may seem more curious to Western eyes, such as the pairing of bats with plump, pinkish peaches. This coupling might seem incongruous, but peaches, too, are associated with longevity in Chinese culture.

Qing dynasty dish with bats and peaches, collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (photo © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)

How a bat is depicted actually contributes to its meaning, which is typically delivered through wordplay. The creature often flies in groups of five to represent the five blessings: fortune, longevity, happiness, virtue, and a peaceful death. When a bat is shown upside, it indicates that good fortune is here, as the Chinese phrase for “upside down” sounds similar to the characters for “arrived.” When paired with a swastika, the bat indicates the arrival of 10,000 blessings. Its appearance on any gourd-shaped object connotes longevity, since gourds are believed to carry elixirs of immortality but also reference fertility due to their abundance in seeds. And when bats soar over ocean waves, they deliver a particularly sophisticated blessing for “fortune as tall as a mountain and longevity as deep as the ocean,” as Zhang explained.

“The language has had a few thousand years to embed these puns throughout the culture, and it really shows in the art, which makes so many visual references to folk wisdom and proverbs,” he added. While these puns will escape non-Chinese language speakers, the bat’s benign appearances and widespread prevalence makes clear its presence is beloved in China — to some extent, of course.

“In the old days it was good luck to get a bat in the house,” Zhang said. “Now I think people are happy to stick with bat ornaments.”

Qing dynasty bowl with a depiction of bats over ocean (c. 1700–1800), collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (photo © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)
Qing dynasty snuff bottle with five bats (c. 1750–1800), collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (photo © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)
Qing dynasty bat carrying a swastika (1900s), collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (photo © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)
Theatrical robe for a male role (second half of the 18th c.), collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Public domain image)
Pair of dishes with bats (1862-74), on view at the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
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