When you’re looking for just the right design for your next project, curating a collection can help you find the perfect pattern. But where do you start? The process begins with finding a theme and identifying recurring motifs. With that in mind, and in honor of Asian & Pacific American Heritage Month, self-taught illustrator and former Chinese language teacher Sarah Yeo is here to share some popular motifs in Chinese art and how she found corresponding designs on Spoonflower. Read along to learn what she found and learn some design collection tips along the way!  

Vertical sections of five designs have been placed in one rectangular image. From left to right, the designs include white cranes on a blue background; tigers on a cream background; pink lotus flowers; green leaves and yellow koi on a dark green background; small brown houses with black roofs dotted among green trees; and pink lotus flowers, cream chrysanthemum flowers, cream orchids and cream plum blossoms on a blue background.
Some of the designs from Sarah Yeo’s collection featuring popular Chinese art motifs.
Featured collection

Exploring the Evolution and Symbolism of Ancient Chinese Art 

Sarah: Chinese art has existed for thousands of years with natural motifs showing up frequently. Across its many disciplines, there are frequent references to animals, like songbirds, horses and deer. Common subjects for landscapes include mountains, lakes, forests, flowers, country life and scenes depicting the changing of seasons. Traditional paintings, both in vivid colour and solely of black ink, have largely depended on the trends of each imperial dynasty throughout history. In this post, we’ll look at how some of these themes and features continue in modern art.    

It should also be noted that while what may be termed as ‘Chinese’ art has several consistent elements that have stood for millennia, art, much like language, evolves over time to incorporate foreign elements. Famous Chinese artists such as Xu Beihong and Lin Fengmian toured Europe in the early 1900s to see how Western artists painted and learned from them. Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit missionary, served as an artist at the imperial court of three Qing dynasty emperors and painted their portraits in a blend of European and Chinese art styles. One does not need to be Chinese in order to create Chinese art, just as one does not need to be British to serve up great fish and chips. I hope that this post can be educational and, more importantly, a reminder that art should always be a unifier of people.  

Three Overarching Categories in Chinese Paintings

Chinese paintings have had variations through the millennia, oftentimes a result of the emperor’s personal tastes that filter down to the royal court, the scholars and finally the general public. At its core, however, is the use of inks and/or paint on special rice paper or silk. The themes have also stayed consistent, falling largely under the three categories of figure paintings, landscape paintings and flower-and-bird paintings. Within each of these categories are an assortment of motifs, oftentimes with symbolic meaning. 

Examples of Themes Found Within Each Category

  1. Figure paintings: people within an urban or village setting, portraits 
  1. Landscapes: mountains, lakes, snow, rain, trees, urban or village buildings, religious buildings, boats, bridges 
  1. Flower-and-bird: peonies, chrysanthemum, lotus, cranes, ducks, eagles, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers 

A Closer Look at 5 Recurring Chinese Art Motifs  

Naturally, many paintings incorporate elements from more than one of these three distinct categories. Therefore, for this post, I’ve narrowed my design collection focus to five different motifs, taking inspiration from the categories listed above as I searched for Spoonflower designs.

In each motif, I’ve also listed a few search terms for you to use if you’re looking for these motifs found in Chinese art. If you’re seeking designs from a different culture or theme, you can follow the same path I took above to create your own collection by looking at things first broadly then narrowing it down to specific defining aspects.

Curation Pro Tip: When visiting the web pages for these designs, don’t forget to scroll down to the bottom of the page to see other recommended designs to help you in your search to find the perfect print! 

1. Birds 

Search terms:
• Chinese birds
• Chinese magpies
• Chinese swallows
• Chinese cranes 

Popular choices for birds include swallows (symbols of spring and love), cranes (symbols of longevity and wisdom), magpies (symbols of happiness and good news) and egrets (symbols of serenity).

Emperor Hui Zong of Song Dynasty once witnessed a scene of cranes taking flight above the palace and painted it, believing it was an auspicious sign of peace and prosperity for the country. It was a painting so well loved by later emperors of Qing Dynasty that cranes were featured in high-level court official uniforms. The ancient Chinese loved cranes because of their longevity and refined elegance. In an era where lives could be cut short from a simple infection, a crane’s longevity symbolised the people’s wishes for a longer life. In ancient legends, those who have achieved enlightenment are often accompanied by cranes, and immortals often used cranes as a means of transport to travel the world. 


2. Landscapes  

Search terms:
• Chinese landscape
• Chinese ink painting
• Chinese mountains 

China’s diverse environments have provided artists with plenty of inspiration in subjects ranging from close ups of a flower to a mountain range undergoing a change in seasons. 

With many of the ancient Chinese literati spending the majority of their time in urban centres, landscape paintings became a way for them to reminisce about the outside world. For some, these works were reminders of the hometowns they had left behind for brighter prospects in the city. Landscape paintings seek to reflect the peace and beauty of the natural world.  

Misty mountains sitting in a sea of clouds are an integral part of the Chinese countryside landscape. Architecture such as pavilions, thatched cottages, boats and bridges are a common sight in the countryside and are sometimes featured as a means to create interest and life in the painting. Bamboo holds a special place in the hearts of many literati because of its tenacious vitality and tall rising form. It is an ideal symbol of a gentleman’s character, upright and unyielding, and would rather break than bend and conform to external pressure.  


3. Flowers and Small Insects

Search terms:
• Chinese peony
• Chinese flowers
• Chinese lotus flowers
• Chinese butterfly 

Like birds, flowers are another popular motif in Chinese art because they are rich in symbolism. Pairing flowers together with insects creates an additional layer of auspicious meaning.

 

Peonies were a favourite amongst dignitaries and scholars for their beauty and fragrance, symbolising wealth and good luck. Considered the foremost of all flowers, only a Chinese empress, who has the highest status amongst all women, could have peonies embroidered on her clothes. Lotus flowers were a favourite amongst the literati because the Chinese word for lotus, lián (莲), is a homophone for uncorrupted and honest (廉). The lotus flower roots in the mud but blooms above the surface of the water. It is a reminder to rise above and not succumb to the darkness and corruption of the world.  

Chrysanthemums are another commonly used flower both in Chinese art and poetry, famous not only for tea but also used to convey elegance and longevity. Chrysanthemums burst into bloom in the late autumn and continue to flourish through the harsh winter months. Hence, they are viewed by poets as a symbol of noble character and integrity. As most of them are also court officials navigating the murky waters of politics, chrysanthemums have the additional meaning of transcending the daily hustle of life in pursuit of a higher goal. When composing a piece of art, it is also important to include complementary details like butterflies and other small insects to round out and balance the painting.   


4. Fish  

Search terms:
• Chinese fish
• Chinese koi
• Chinese carp
• Ornamental fish pond 

According to traditional beliefs of ancient Chinese people, fish are close relatives of dragons and a mythical giant fish-bird creature known as the Kūn Péng (鲲鹏) in the Northern Sea. They are thus regarded as mascots of prosperity and wealth.  

During the Spring and Autumn era (720 BCE to 480 BCE) before the Warring States era, the gifting of fish was a fashionable activity that nobles engaged in as a symbol of their status. The monarch of the State of Lu heard that Confucious welcomed a new child to the family and gave him a carp as a congratulatory gift. Confucius attached great importance to this and named his son after the carp.  

Koi may be a somewhat common fish nowadays in backyard ponds. However, in the Western Jin dynasty of the third century, they could only be afforded by royalty and the wealthy. It was common for ponds in the imperial palace to be filled with koi. 


5. Animals  

Search terms:
• Chinese tiger
• Wild horses
• Chinese animals  

Animals such as oxen, donkeys or horses were painted not so much for symbolism but as an easily accessible subject for practice.

Oxen were an essential working animal for agriculture. Donkeys were pack animals that doubled up as a source of transportation. Horses belonged more to wealthy individuals. But given that many painters were from at least the middle to upper classes, they would have been familiar with horses for transportation or even war. Poultry, such as chickens, often made appearances as well.  

Animal paintings need not be lifelike. Exaggeration and variance in form are allowed, but they must have personality and be able to capture the essence of the animal. One of the most famous Chinese painters of the twentieth century, Xu Beihong, was known for his ability to capture both the form and wild spirit of horses.  

Chinese Art’s Evolution Into the Present

The long history of Chinese art has provided a rich repository of motifs and themes. But art evolves. Does street art sprayed out from cans of paint by a Chinese artist in mainland China count as Chinese art? What if it were done by a Chinese artist who has moved to the US? What if the art was done to mimic traditional ink paintings but done on an iPad? Or by someone with Chinese ancestry who was born and bred in Australia? Globalisation has resulted in the meshing and melding of so many cultural influences and artistic techniques that it is impossible to isolate what is ‘pure’ Chinese art. 

But what we can always do is study the work of the great masters of old. We can learn their techniques and adapt them to fit our own practices—just as those masters themselves did when they learned from the ones who came before them. The essence of Chinese art has always been to convey the beauty and majesty of life in all its elegant, rugged and imperfect ways. 

If you are reading this as a consumer, I hope you have learnt a little about the lens through which traditional Chinese art is viewed. If you are reading this as an artist, I hope this has given you food for thought as you pursue your next great piece of art. These designs are just a starting point for Chinese art to discover on Spoonflower and beyond.   

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