The pursuit of longevity has played an unusually notable role in China. Societal respect for the elderly (a generally Confucian value) and the individual’s search for longevity or immortality (a loosely Daoist concern) resulted in a preoccupation with long life that was reflected in the visual arts.
By the time of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, certain motifs and stories associated with long life had become fundamental themes in paintings, on garments, and in the decorative arts that were appropriate as gifts, dress, and furnishings for occasions such as birthday and retirement celebrations. Among the themes are the character for longevity itself, immortals and certain legendary figures, motifs such as peaches associated with immortals, and, finally, other motifs connected to long life through physical attributes or word play.
A decorative motif in itself, the character for longevity (shou) can appear in at least 100 variant forms and frequently occurs on hangings (1984.353), garments (30.75.5), and decorative arts (16.61) that were appropriate for auspicious occasions such as birthday celebrations. The swastika often appears with the shou character and reinforces its auspicious meaning (46.133.11). An ancient symbol originating in India, the swastika is called wan in Chinese and denotes 10,000 years; the pairing of wan and shou also occurred in the name given to the celebration of the emperor‘s birthday in the Qing dynasty: wanshoujie, literally, “festival of 10,000-year longevity.”
Considered part of the pantheons of Daoism and Chinese popular religion, immortals were readily adopted as subjects in secular arts. The god of longevity, Shoulao (14.40.212), easily recognized by his prominent cranium, is sometimes accompanied by a deer or rides on the back of a crane. Among his companions are the eight Daoist immortals (2006.238), legendary figures sometimes represented in the visual arts only by their attributes, such as the crutch and gourd of Li Tieguai.
The queen mother of the west (Xiwangmu) figured in stories about the peaches of immortality that grew in her celestial peach orchard. The peaches conferred immortality on anyone who ate them. Xiwangmu freely offered the peaches to gods and to certain deserving mortals (14.40.331), and they were served at banquets she hosted. Sometimes, however, peaches were taken without her permission. For example, the legendary Han-dynasty official Dongfang Suo (26.114.4) stole peaches from the orchard and thus illegitimately achieved immortality.
Other legendary figures were associated with longevity. One scene frequently represented in large-scale works was the eightieth birthday reception for General Guo Ziyi, a heroic figure of the Tang dynasty who was transformed into a popular god of wealth, honor, and happiness. The birthday reception, a celebration of his long and fruitful life, often appeared on works commissioned for birthdays, retirements, or promotions of distinguished individuals (1971.74a–h).
The peach, even without the physical presence of Xiwangmu, had a strong link to longevity. The peach is seen in drinking cups (02.18.433a,b), decorative vases (17.120.194), and even scholars’ objects such as ink tablets (30.76.197). Works with patterns of blossoming peach branches and trees evoke not only the peach orchard of Xiwangmu but also the story of the peach blossom spring, from a poem by Tao Yuanming (365–427) in which the ordinary but immortal populace of an ethereal village located in a grove of blossoming peach trees lives without being aware of the passage of time or the pressures of the world.
Motifs were sometimes connected to long life through physical attributes. Long-lived and evergreen, pines were associated with longevity. Cranes were already linked to long life through their role as conveyences of the immortals; in addition, their white feathers could also bring to mind the white hair of the elderly and, when seen in pairs, could obliquely refer to an elderly couple (1975.268.81). This association also held true for small birds with white-feathered heads (1989.363.15), common in paintings given as birthday gifts to elderly couples. The physical property of length was also associated with long life. The peanut plant (1986.208.1) was linked to longevity not only because of the perceived healthfulness of the peanut as food but also because of the plant’s long root system. Long-tailed birds and long ribbons were also connected with long life.
Sometimes word play allowed a pattern usually associated with one auspicious wish to express another instead. For example, the butterfly (1970.145) was primarily associated with joy and weddings, but because its name (hudie) is a pun for “age seventy to eighty,” it also symbolized longevity.
Motifs symbolic of longevity were often combined with patterns associated with other desirable conditions, such as happiness, wealth, and attaining high rank. For example, bats, symbolic of blessings, often occur among longevity motifs (65.210.2). Decorative arts, paintings, and garments with longevity themes provided a generalized sense of auspiciousness, and the motifs were sometimes mixed with other patterns to form pleasing works appropriate for many occasions.
Denney, Joyce. “Longevity in Chinese Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/long/hd_long.htm (August 2010)
Qinggong yanle cangzhen. See especially the section on imperial birthday banquets. Text and checklist of this exhibition catalogue are in both Chinese and English. Beijing: Beijing Chubanshe, 2002.
Bartholomew, Teresa Tse. Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art. See especially the chapter on longevity. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum, 2006.
Kesel, W. de, and G. Dhont. Coromandel Lacquer Screens. See especially the section on birthday screens. Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 2002.
Lam, Peter Y.K. "Myriad Longevity without Boundaries: Some Qing Imperial Birthday Ceramics from Hong Kong Collections." Arts of Asia, Vol. 40, no. 5 (September–October 2010), pp. 106–117.
Silbergeld, Jerome "Chinese Concepts of Old Age and Their Role in Chinese Painting, Painting Theory, and Criticism." Art Journal 46, no. 2 (Summer 1987), pp. 103–14.