Genre: Non-Fiction, Art History, Japanese History, Chinese History, mythology.
Publisher: PIE International
I found this beautiful book in an art gallery and decided that, despite the hefty price-tag, I simply had to own it! This elegant coffee table book charts the artistic symbolism of animals in northern Asia with a particular focus on Japan and China. Each page is translated and in both Japanese and English.
If you have ever looked at a Japanese silk screen print or sculpture and wondered what the cranes, monkeys or bears mean…this book is for you!
It is a deep dive into the rich historical, aesthetic and symbolic history of Japanese/ Chinese animal art and includes the “Big Four” of oriental mythology:
- Flying Dragon
- Chinese Phoenix
- Quilin/Kirin (a hooved ungulate and a chimeric creature)
- Spirit turtle
One thing I did notice which put me off quite a bit, was that the stories of art from the past are inspired by animals like rhinos, giraffes or elephants who went on long perilous journeys over the sea to be given as gifts for emperors or other wealthy people.
These journeys obviously entailed the animals’ immense suffering and death along the way or soon after their arrival. Regardless of the fact that this happened a long time ago and went on throughout history and still does to this day, as an animal activist I found this emotionally confronting. I found myself getting angry, even despite how futile and silly it is to be angry at a moment in history.
This is one of those coffee table books with a lot of beautiful paintings and sculptures that you would otherwise not see. However, the subject matter of animals and the way their bodies were used historically for silly reasons (eg. rhino horn for example used to cure illnesses; or laying on tapir skins to ward off evil spirits) incensed me.
The spectacular art in the book is really thrilling and exciting. However the book is let down by a lack of detail about these real life animals and mythical creatures that western readers may otherwise not read.
The descriptions of mythological and biological creatures were very vague, other than to say that they were either lucky or unlucky and a few vague flourishes of detail that tease about a much bigger and longer story.
I would have liked more depth to the written accompaniment to the beautiful art, for this reason it’s only two stars. I think you would be able to find a much more comprehensive and deeper analysis of Japanese and Chinese animal myths and legends and their cultural importance in another book – although no doubt you wouldn’t find the same spectacular art in any other book.
This is a dragon with wings and it’s also known as Yinglong. This creature is portrayed as having wings, the body of a fish and the head of a dragon. Often portrayed alongside waves, it is thought that is carries the connotation of fire prevention. There is also a story of a legendary gateway to success (Toryumon) where the carp that swims through the dragon’s gate (ryumon) waterfall becomes a dragon.
The dragon is the lord of the scaled beasts. They are known as spirits who control the rain and can shape-shift to their heart’s content. They ascend to the heavens during the vernal equinox and descend into a deep pool on the autumnal equinox. The dragon is said to have nine similarities or physical aspects that resemble nine different types of animals. These are:
- A head like a camel
- Horns like a deer
- Eyes like a demon (or rabbit depending on the source)
- Ears like a cow
- Neck like a snake
- Belly like a clam-monster
- Scales like a carp
- Claws like a hawk
- Paws like a tiger
The original form of the dragon was as a divine beast (Kui) that saved people from their own desires. In China, dragons were deified as a sacred beast that brings good fortune, the dragon was considered emblematic of royal authority. This was especially so for dragons that represented the emperor, these would have five claws. Other uses for this sacred symbol were strictly limited.
The dragon has 81 scales and they numerically correspond to the Double Ninth Festival.
What is the Double Ninth Festival?
Also called the Chung Yeung Festival and Chongyang Festival, the Double Ninth Festival is an ancient memorial festival that falls on the ninth day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar. In 2020, the Double Ninth Festival falls on the 25th October in the Greogorian calendar. This is an auspicious day, when people climb mountains and admire chrysanthemums and eat cakes made from chrysanthemums.
This is an auspicious bird from ancient Chinese thought that is seen as being the ‘most excellent’ of all 360 types of winged creatures. The male is called the feng and the female is called the huang.
The red bird, born in the south (Zhū Què), whose Japanese name is Suzaku is a bird guardian of the South and one of the Four Symbols of Chinese constellations.
The top half of the body is that of a large wild goose, the bottom half is that of a kirin. The lower jaw is that of a swallow, the beak is of a chicken. The wings consist of 5 colours and are between 121-151cm in height. They fly across the seven seas and will appear if virtue prevails across the realm.
The Qilin (in Chinese) or Kirin (in Japanese) is a hooved chimerical creature that is said to herald the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler, their appearance signalling a period of peace on earth. In Vietnamese mythology they are known as kỳ lân.
It is said that they are fussy eaters and won’t eat living bugs – possibly why they are known as the ‘virtuous bird’. Phoenixes supposedly prefer to nest in Chinese parasol trees (paulownia trees), will only eat bamboo fruit and only drink pure spring water (sounds like a true Prima donna).
The Bai Ze
There is a marsh beast in JiangXu Province, a name of them is Bai Ze and they have a great command of language – they appear when there is a just ruler and their benevolence brings light to the world. They live deep in the mountains and have six horns and nine eyes on different parts of their body. It is believed that they have the power to prevent diseases and misfortune. Travellers during the Edo period would hold an image of Bai Ze in their pockets believing that this would ward off misfortune.
Bai Ze and Exotic Trees, Cedar Doors, Kano School, 1636.