The Significance of Cranes as Symbols in Chinese Art and Carpets

Cranes in Chinese Art by Nazmiyal

The History of Cranes in Chinese Art

Cranes in Chinese art — Since ancient times, the Chinese have been exceptionally creative in using various living, non-living and imaginary objects to represent abstract ideas. They have a symbol for everything, including life, death and longevity. One glance at Chinese art and carpets can educate on the myriads of Chinese symbols. Among the most popular and widely used symbols are the ones for longevity. They include bamboo, cicada, peach, gourd, pine, deer and crane.

Cranes, or herons as they are also referred to as, play an important role in Chinese mythology. In Chinese culture, the crane is venerated as the prince of all feathered creatures and thus has a legendary status. Embodying longevity and peace, it is the second most favored bird symbol after the phoenix. Throughout the imperial times, crane motifs were used on the robes of civil officials to depict their ranks. Because of its ability to fly high and over long distances, its wings were used as an amulet for protection against exhaustion.

Cranes in Chinese Art by Nazmiyal
Left: Fairy and Crane, Embroidery with silk from the Qing Dynasty.
Right: Covered ewer, Porcelain painted in enamels from the Qing Dynasty

There are four types of cranes in Chinese mythology: White, black, blue and yellow. But rather than the color, the setting and postures of the swan are more important. A crane that is shown with its wings stretched out and one leg raised stands for longevity. When it is shown under a pine tree near a spotted deer, it symbolizes a prolonged life. One that is shown among peony flowers stands for prosperity and longevity while one that is shown with lotus flowers symbolizes purity and longevity. If a crane is shown flying towards the sun, it signifies a desire for social advancement. A crane that is shown perched on a rock and looking at the sun stands for an important authority who can see everything. Two cranes walking or flying together is the ultimate symbol of longevity.

Since cranes fly in the clear blue sky above the dusty earth, they are also considered symbols of cleanliness and purity. When a Taoist priest is on his deathbed, people say that he is turning into a feathered crane. Many Chinese still believe that cranes carry their spirit to heaven after they die. With such a revered and legendary status, no wonder cranes appear consistently in Chinese art and carpets.

Beautiful Antique Chinese Scenic Rug 47677
Beautiful Antique Chinese Scenic Rug 47677
Antique Chinese Rug 46822
Antique Chinese Rug 46822
Beautiful Antique Chinese Rug 47558
Beautiful Antique Chinese Rug 47558

The depiction of cranes in Chinese art and carpets are almost entirely based on their mythological significance and symbolism. But there is a slight difference between the way they are depicted in art and carpet. While in art they are usually shown alone, in a pair or in a group in a beautiful natural setting, like a lake or waterfall, in carpets they may be shown with other symbols such as a lion.

Antique Chinese Animal Scene Carpet 48434
Antique Chinese Animal Scene Carpet 48434
Antique Chinese Carpet 48435
Antique Chinese Carpet 48435

One of the more popular depictions of cranes in Chinese carpets is of a red-crested crane flying among the clouds and roses, symbolizing longevity, wisdom and nobility. Another popular depiction is a crane hovering above a deer grazing under a pine tree. Two cranes dancing on the ground or flying together are also very common. In whichever scenes cranes are depicted, their symbolism in Chinese art and carpets is always important.