Bet on the Bat: The Bat in Chinese Art

Bats are a common symbol in Chinese art and architecture. But why? Read on to find out more about the symbolism of bats and how it has comforted people throughout the ages. 

By Ilina Tatiana

“A thousand-year-old rat turns into a white bat; deep in the cave it hides away from being trapped; to avoid danger and stay alive, it spends all its life in the dark and does not bother about it.”
Bai Juyi (772 – 846), “The Bat in The Cave”

This poem by Bai Juyi, a renowned Tang poet, reflects the belief in the longevity and self-sufficiency of bats. Echoing them is the character “福” (“fú”), denoting luck and happiness, an omnipresent decoration on the front doors across China during Spring Festival. The connection between the wingy mammal and the character is rooted in the very heart of Chinese culture, Chinese language.  

Having noticed the “福” character pasted upside down on the front door, an incoming guest might say “Your fu character is upside down” which in Chinese is pronounced like “Your luck has arrived!”. Similarly, Bat (“蝠”, “fú”) sounds the same as happiness (“福”, “fú”) and is one of the lucky words that Chinese people have used since ancient times up until today to express their wishes to obtain what they think is important in life: wealth, happy marriage, many children and long life. Other frequent lucky words are fish (“鱼”, “yú”) alluding to abundance (“余”, “yú”), vase (“瓶”, “píng”), connoting peace (“平”, “píng”) , fermented cake (“发糕”, “fā gāo”) evoking “to become rich” (“发财”, “fā cái”, here the different meanings of same verb “发” are used) . Homophones are common in the Chinese language because of the restricted range of distinct syllables, a limited number of tones, a fixed form of words and the monosyllabic nature of Old Chinese

Dish with peaches and bats. 18th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The bat is an emblem of happiness not only because of the similar pronunciation. As suggested in Bai Juyi’s poem, this nocturnal animal itself has strong positive connotations. According to the Compendium of Materia Medica (16th century), certain parts of bats can be used to cure illnesses. “Baopuzi”, attributed to an alchemist and philosopher of the Eastern Jin dynasty (317 – 420) Ge Hong, states that thousand-year-old bats grant immortality. In art, the bat, itself alluding to the concept of blessing, is often combined with the symbols of long life and immortality. An example is a design with bats flying around a character for longevity “寿” (“shòu”) as seen on this robe from the first half of the 18th century.

Woman’s Ceremonial Robe. First half of the 18th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art

In this design, popular during the Qing dynasty, in line with the common practice of turning characters into artistic patterns, the longevity symbol is highly stylized. A wish for a long life is shown by bats combined with peaches of immortality. These peaches grow in the garden of Mother Queen of the West, a goddess who lives in the Kunlun Mountains and confers eternal life on her adherents. The design was favored by Emperor Yongzheng (1678 – 1735) as he hoped it would prevent his assassination after his disputed ascension to the throne

Longevity is one of the five components of a good life as commonly perceived by Chinese people; the other four are wealth, health and peace, love of virtue, and a natural death. Originating from the Book of Documents, they are depicted as five bats symbolizing the five blessings. With the help of a great Tang painter Wu Daozi (680-740), this design made its way into a portrait of Zhong Kui, a Taoist folklore god and a vanquisher of evil beings and ghosts. When Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (685 – 762), was ill, he had a dream in which he saw two ghosts. One of them stole his jade flute and his concubine’s purse, the other Zhong Kui caught and destroyed. After a brief conversation with Zhong Kui, the emperor woke up to realize that his illness was cured and ordered Wu Daozi to paint a portrait of Zhong Kui. It is believed that Wu Daozi added several bats to the portrait as they could see ghosts in the night and help Zhong Kui catch them. 

Zhong Kui fighting poisonous creatures. Late 19th – early 20th century. The State Hermitage Museum

The five blessings lead us to the idea of complete happiness or “happiness as vast as the heavens” (“洪福齐天”, “hóng fú qí tiān”), which can be illustrated by the “bats-in-the-clouds” ornament, which appeared on mirrors of the Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BC). The symbol endured through the centuries to reappear on the vessels of the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912). 

Jade bowl. Late 18th – early 19th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Endowed with a gift of bringing happiness, the bat has been carrying it through the ages, leaving its blessing on mirrors, robes and countless vessels, soaring through the clouds and swirling around peaches in the garden of a goddess, helping the demon vanquisher chase ghosts and making people  live longer or even forever. At the end of the day, it will return to its cave in the hills in the South of China to have a rest there for another thousand years. 

千年鼠化白蝙蝠,黑洞深藏避网罗。远害全身诚得计,一生幽暗又如何。白居易《洞中蝙蝠》Sung, M.M.Y. (1979). Chinese language and culture: a study of homonyms, lucky words and taboos. Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 7 (1). P. 18
Koehn A. (1952). Chinese Flower Symbolism. Monumenta Nipponica. 8 (1/2). P. 122
Sung, M.M.Y. (1979). Chinese language and culture: a study of homonyms, lucky words and taboos. Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 7 (1). P. 19
Ibid. P. 16
On-Tsun A.F. “Bat Cave”: Messages Behind Chinese Art Objects with Bat Design.
Sung, M.M.Y. (1979). Chinese language and culture: a study of homonyms, lucky words and taboos. Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 7 (1). p.18
On-Tsun A.F. “Bat Cave”: Messages Behind Chinese Art Objects with Bat Design.
Ancient Chinese Bronze Mirrors. Swallow, R.W. Peiping: Henri Vetch, 1937

Where have you seen the bat symbol recently? Let us know in the comments below. We always love hearing your thoughts and insights! 

Author Bio:

Ms. Ilina Tatiana is an art lover and culture hunter.

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