Chinese (18th c.)
Album of Miniature Sketches
Ink and colors on silk, 5 1/16 x 3 1/2” (each leaf)
Gift of William Bingham II from the Peterson Collection
In Chinese art, animals often have symbolic meanings that reflect our experiences as human beings. Two leaves from Jin Xiaqi’s album of animal subjects show paired birds: peacocks and mandarin ducks. In one, a peahen sipping water is distracted by the regal display of the lavishly adorned peacock. Their interaction mimics that of the human figures for which they stand, the emperor and empress. As a result of this comparison, peacocks also symbolize dignity. The second album leaf accurately depicts the loving relationship of mandarin ducks. In fact, as mandarin ducks are believed to die of heartache if separated, so the pair symbolizes conjugal fidelity.
This arresting image shows a dragon rising from turbulent waters and pursuing the pearl of wealth. This dragon is a long, believed to be the most powerful of the three types of dragons in Chinese mythology. Although his home is the heavens, during the fall he lives in the water. This image may show the long dragon at the moment of its journey back home, a journey that was credited with bringing the nourishing rains of spring. As you can see, in the Chinese imagination dragons are beneficent creatures. It is also interesting to note that dragons are not immortal, but, as divine animals, they can choose when to die.
Two doe seem to be indulging in a private conversation as a buck walks into the foreground of the painting. In Buddhism, these gentle creatures symbolize the sacredness of life and universal love because the Buddha preached his first sermon describing these principles in Deer Park in Northern India. In China, deer are believed to live a long life and to be the only animal capable of finding the plant of immortality. Therefore, they symbolize longevity and their horns were widely consumed in various forms as elixirs.
Anna Kosovsky, Bowdoin ’08