Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bats: Terror of the Night, or Omen of Good Luck?

With its gauzy blue wings and glittery details, the above Chinese bat is perhaps the most delicate and pretty one that I have seen. Since Halloween is coming up, with its frightening images of attacking vampire bats, I thought this would be a good time to compare Eastern and Western bats.

"I want to suck your blood...."

This bat, with its matted fur, sharp fangs, and glowing red eyes, shows the Halloween bat at its fearsome worst. However, even Western scientific treatises manage to capture the most menacing and unfriendly aspect of bats, as in this hand-colored engraving from a natural history text of 1840:

In Chinese culture, bats have a positive symbolism, and are considered to bring good luck, because the Chinese word for bat (fu,蝠) resembles the one for luck (fu,福) and is also written similarly. Here are a couple of  good-luck bats that are meant to be hung in the home, one in wood, and the other in gilt bronze. (Neither of these is very old; in future posts, I plan to examine how bats were incorporated into antique and vintage items.)

Bats are very auspicious commercially, as in this sign for “One Luck” take-out food.

If these outlines of Chinese bats are starting to look familiar, that is because bat-shaped hardware was borrowed by the heavily Chinese-influenced furniture designer Thomas Chippendale. Once you see this connection, a lot of Chinese-inspired scroll-work will resolve itself into bat-forms. Here are a couple of bonnet-top high chests from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts which incorporate Chinese Chippendale drawer-pulls and other brasses.

An Eighteenth-century Massachusetts high chest.

Detail of Massachusetts chest.

Another high chest, this one by famed Newport cabinetmaker John Townsend, c.1750’s.

Detail of Townsend chest.

Bats are truly ubiquitous here in Taiwan. They are found in good-luck charms, jewelry, home furnishings, stationery—just about anywhere. Taking a look around my apartment, I noticed a bat motif in the tile floor of the balcony, which has a repeating design of four bats facing inward in a circle:

The corners of my coffee table are enhanced with carved bats.

Here is an especially festive and friendly bat that adds an additional good-luck element to a New Year’s decorative firecracker.

So now that you have compared both types, which bats do you prefer:  auspicious, friendly, attractive Chinese ones, or dreadful, unlucky, ominous Western ones?

One more look at a scary Western bat.

Photo credits: The two high chests are courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, All other images belong to the author.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Zhu Bajie: The Pig God (Nice ladies please DO NOT read this)

A fascinating aspect of Asian culture is the vast number of religious statues. Many of these are deities, although others are demons, generals, teachers, ancestors, and even animals. Some statues such as Guan Yin are peaceful and beautiful, but there is an amazing variety.

One of the more interesting ones I’ve come across is Zhu Bajie, a character from the Ming dynasty novel, Journey to the West, also known as Monkey. Zhu Bajie, represented as a human body with the head of a pig, was a heavenly commander who was cast down to earth because of his piggish appetites, and who then had many complicated adventures.

My first indication that this was an unusual object was when I bought it, and I was warned not to give the effigy to any female friend or relative, because this character was rather unsavory, and was the special “guardian saint” for prostitutes. Keith Stevens in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch had this to say about Zhu Bajie:

"Although he is usually regarded China-wide as the epitome of gluttony, in Taiwan he is also revered by prostitutes who call on his divine title Shoushou Ye, offering him incense and chants morning and evening whilst calling on him to bring them rich guests, foolish and witless, to be fleeced." 

Quite a reputation this Zhu Bajie has. Since I brought him into my apartment I have not noticed any material change in the quality of my guests and other visitors (although naturally I would be too polite to tell the truth on that score. Furthermore, maybe I didn't get the chant right.)

I have managed to find a couple of other images of Zhu Bajie. The above panel came from a piece of furniture, and is a mahogany-like wood, inlaid with boxwood and bone. Unlike the happy 3-D statue, this one looks disgruntled, and the bird next to him doesn’t look too happy, either. Also, he is holding a large flower, whereas Zu Bajie’s normal attribute is a rake which he holds as a weapon. He may look like he is waving, but actually he is about to wreak destruction.

Zhu Bajie with Rake. (Source:

This rather trim and stylish example is very similar to the top one, though perhaps a bit more brightly colored. While both of these small statues have lost their rakes, their right hands are eternally raised to wield them.

Normally, statues like the above are placed on home altars or in temples, so I had assumed that Zhu Bajie dates back into Chinese mythology, but apparently he originated in the Journey to the West novel, many scenes from which have made their way into Chinese art. I find these little statues appealing and a little bizarre, but strangest of all is how a fictional character was deified by prostitutes.