Vegder's Blog

April 12, 2012

I Am Going Bats – Bat, Batty, Bats – Part One – Mostly China

Since I always like to start off my news posts with a visual bang I am offering here a double gourd shaped vase from the Qianlong period (1736-95)  in China. This rather, some would say, gawdy piece is decorated with pink and blue bats. It is from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Watch what you say Jack – a generic name I use for everybody –  if you don’t like it  because I do.

A list of these symbolic designs is said to have been given in the ‘Book of Wings,’
by Ragiel, one of the curious treatises composed about the thirteenth century
under the influence of Hebrew and Greco-Roman tradition.

A bat, represented on a heliotrope or bloodstone, gives the wearer power over
demons and
helps incantations.

Note that this is not applicable to bat images from China, but I thought it was a good way to
start off this section.

Anyone who knows me well would say that is nothing new. “He’s been bats for years and I can prove it.” However, that is not the kind of bats I am talking about. Everyone knows I am a little bit loony, a little bit nuts – well, maybe, somewhat more than a little bit. But that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about the order Chiroptera. You know those bats that are spooky, scary, stealthy, fascinating and downright enigmatic. In the West they seem to represent only things which are dark and menacing while in the East, the Far East, they have a more positive connotation.

Funny thing about words: used one way they can be harmless, even somewhat positive, but at other times they conjure up only negative thoughts and are only referred to in the pejorative. That’s bats for ‘ya. They are all over the place, so to speak.

I grew up thinking of bats as something you didn’t want biting your neck or getting stuck in your hair. If I had been born in China instead of Missouri I might have had a more positive take on these nocturnal creatures. It wasn’t until my mid-20s when I started studying Chinese art seriously that I had my eyes and my mind opened to a different way of looking at them.

So… let’s start with China where they are big into homonyms – You know, words that sound like each other like slow and sloe, tow and toe, flow and floe, know and no. But the Chinese take it a step further and, as in the case for bats, they use the image of that animal as a visual stand-in for happiness.

It would take too long and be too complex for a person like me to explain fully how this came about. The simple answer: Chinese is a tonal language. Each character is pronounced with one of four sounds: high and straight, rising, falling and then rising, and falling. The word for happiness is fú (福) – notice the mark indicating a rising tone or sound – and the word for bat is fú (蝠) – same thing, a rising tone. Hence, the two words written with different characters are homonyms. So, if you see a bat on a Chinese carving, painting, fabric, porcelain, etc., you are being sent the message that the image is meant to convey the concept of happiness. Bats = happiness!

Bats, which stand for happiness, are one of the most common of many
Qing dynasty rebuses. (A rebus is a pictorial pun based on two nouns
that sound alike but have different meanings.)

…a picture of a bat can represent the abstract concept of happiness.
Here the bats are embroidered in red and pink, colors that connote joy.

Quotes from Mary Dusenbury’s Flowers, Dragons and Pine Trees

C.A.S. Williams in his Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives said: “The pien fu (蝙蝠) – under which term is included all the numerous kinds of bats – has several names. It is called fu i (附翼), or ’embracing wings,’ referring to the manner in which it spreads out and hangs by its wings. Other names are t’ien shu (天鼠), ‘heavenly rat’; hsien shu (仙鼠); fei shu (飛鼠,), ‘flying rat’; and yeh yen (夜燕), ‘night swallow,’ etc.

Williams added that “According to the Pên Ts’ao (本草), or Chinese Herbal, in the caverns of the hills are found bats a thousand years old, and white as silver, which are believed to feed on stalactites, and if eaten will ensure longevity and good sight. The blood gall, wings, etc., are therefore prescribed as ingredients in certain medicines.” This book also states that these creatures could fly during the day except they need to avoid attacks by one type of predatory hawks. Bats also are believed to fly with their heads pointed downward “…because the brain is heavy.” Another source says: “Taken internally, bat brains cured forgetfulness. The blood and bile of the bat dripped into the eyes kept one awake and enabled one to see in the dark. Eating dried, pure white bats that fed on stalactites made a person fat and robust, and prolonged his life for 1,000 years.”

   Here are the only white bats I could find. They are from Honduras and not China. Personally, I don’t think any stalactite eating bats ever existed in China, but I have been known to be wrong on numerous — errrrr, I mean, innumerable occasions. These bats were posted at commons.wikimedia by Leyo.

After looking up 蝙蝠 at an major Internet  translation site I found that these characters translate as Chiroptera.

The BIG question (or, at least, one of them) is – When did the bat become a substitute symbol for happiness? According to Berthold Laufer (1874-1934), the curator of Asian Anthropology at the Field Museum from 1908 until his death, there was a piece of jade originally thought to have dated from long before the Han dynasty while, in fact, it was made long after. It had an inscription on it, but as Laufer noted “…inscriptions on ancient jade pieces are always open to suspicion. But more than this, I am suspicious of the design of five bats as symbols of the five kinds of happiness, arranged on this kuei, — which, to my knowledge, occurs neither in the Chou nor in the Han period. From a consideration of the jade court-girdles of the T’ang dynasty, it will appear that the bat as an emblem of happiness on objects of jade occurs not earlier than in the T’ang period [618-907].

The earliest Chinese bat image I have been able to find so far comes from the Freer-Sackler collection. It is a jade pendant that dates all the way back to the Anyang period of the late Shang dynasty (ca. 1300 – ca. 1050 B.C.E.) What I don’t know is how they pronounced the word for bat back then or if they even used the same sound, but the use of the symbolism seems reasonably clear.

   © The Smithsonian – Freer Sackler Galleries

Most of the bat images I was able to find come from the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, which started in 1644 and fell in 1915. That means there is quite a gap in my knowledge of bat motifs from the time of the Shang dynasty until the present day. However, one joy I have in doing research on all topics is that the most unexpected twists and turns happen when I least expect them. That is the case here. When I decided to look at the volumes published by Joseph Needham and his colleagues I ran across a reference to ‘bat-stones‘. That is what the Chinese called trilobite fossils because of their resemblance to bats’ wings. Needham notes that these fossils were being used for medical purposes by the time of the Sung dynasty (960-1279).

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find trilobites fascinating, but creepy. I’m talking skin-crawling creepy. See what I mean:

   I found this posted at commons.wikimedia. It is remarkable how similar this creature’s body resembles certain Chinese written characters, but I will get back to that later – if I remember.

Before I leave trilobites and get back to Chinese bats and their symbolic meanings I want you to see one more image I found at the same site. Keep in mind that Needham says these fossils were called ‘bat-stones’ because of their visual kinship with bat wings. Perhaps this next photo will make the comparison a little more understandable.

 This image was listed under “Trilobites Holochroal Eye” – look it up, I did. But it isn’t the eye that I wanted you to see as much as I wanted you to notice the wing-like appendages that might remind one of a bat’s wing – perhaps.

Before I leave off for the evening I thought I might give you one more pleasant example of a Chinese use of this motif on a piece of blue and white porcelain. It is from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum and is thought to date from ca. 1662-1772. It shows blue bats paired with peaches, a symbol of longevity. Thus, may the owner live a long and happy life.

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There is a remarkable carved hair decoration in the Rijksmuseum said to date from the Song dynasty (960-1279)  – The museum says that it is carved from coral and represents bats and peaches. That would make it the oldest piece with that motif which I have been able to find so far. Not that I am a doubter, but I am. Remember I am from Missouri and that is the ‘Show Me State’. We have trouble believing what we are being told and even sometimes when we are being shown things we still don’t believe it. That is the case here. I wish the Rijksmuseum posted more information about this piece, but either way it is a remarkable work of craftsmanship – and there is no denying that even if the bats do look a little tadpole into frog-like creatures.

   © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam   © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (detail)

What’s better than blue bats? Red bats, of course – Below is another jade carving, but this one dates about 2,500 to 3,000 years later than the first one shown up the page. And this time it appears to be covered with cinnabar giving the bats a red appearance. Why red? Because if bats mean happiness then red bats mean extreme happiness – like bats or happiness in overdrive. Not only that these bats are flying among red clouds and vapor which leads to another pun meaning ‘to implore blessings’.

   © The Smithsonian – Freer Sackler Galleries

Robert Finlay in his book on porcelains of the world, The Pilgrim Art…, notes that “…red bats stood for abundant good fortune from the gods.” That’s better than my use of the word ‘extreme’, but basically make the same point. Finlay also notes that “…five bats correspond to the notion of ‘fivefold happiness’ (virtue, progeny, riches, health and longevity)…” The 5 Blessings (wu fu) are somewhat different as described by Robert Hobson, one of the gods of early Western scholarship of Chinese porcelains. According to Hobson they are “…longevity, riches, peacefulness and serenity, love of virtue and an end crowning of the life, are suggested by five bats.” Hobson adds that red is “the colour of happiness in Chinese eyes.”

While the piece of jade above shows only three bats that’s okay. Three is a propitious number too. And before we leave Finlay’s book I should note that he says that a butterfly combined with five bats gives a message of hope for doubling one’s manifold blessings.

Sometimes red bats are more orange than red, but at least here there are five of them – I can’t possibly convey the glories of Chinese porcelain to you. I am not capable of such a thing, but leave it say that from my point of view there is nothing finer in this world than a great piece of Chinese porcelain. One of my true passions. And… one of the great things about being able to create posts like this one is that I get to search for and show you some of the world’s finest examples. Below is a Qing dynasty porcelain dish from the Yongzheng period (1723–35), one of the greatest ages of porcelain production. Below is an exquisite dish again showing bats and peaches, three in the bowl and two on the underside rim.

In the West Satan is (generally) red – There is a fragment of a stained glass window in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dating from ca. 1200-15. It comes from the cathedral of Saint-Étienne in Bourges, France and represents a devil probably from a scene of the Last Judgment.

In Christian symbolism, Satan, the enemy of light, and his demons were equipped with bat wings

Quoted from: The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art  by Hope B. Werness

There is also a poster in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was drawn by Theo Matejko (1893-1946) in 1919 and shows the Devil and a priest. The Devil is a stand-in for the communists while the priest represents the reactionary right. Both are trying to win the people over to their points of view. Knowing the devil you are with: After 1933 Matejko designed posters exclusively for the Nazis.

    ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

However, red is not only one of the colors of Satan in the West, but it is also the color of the Passion, the color of Christ’s blood. Not a happy color at all.

To lacquer or not to lacquer – Now back to China and its red bats. There are two remarkable items in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with red bats on them. One is a Qianlong period (1736-95) carved red lacquer brush box showing bats flying over waves with various positive symbols held in their mouths.

Naturally every great brush requires a great brush holder. There is one worthy of the best brushes made of carved red glass on a white base also dating from the Yongzheng period and now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Fortunately, that museum not only shows us the brush holder as it is, but also gives us an image of the outer decoration as if it were being unrolled.

Bats, peaches and waves – There is a dish in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London which shows a peach tree growing out over a body of water. There are 5 bats flying about. According to the curatorial notes this image illustrates a traditional birthday greeting:“May your happiness be as the Eastern Sea and may you live to be as old as the Southern Mountain”.

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A wonderful revelation – It wasn’t until I read the curatorial notes about the dish shown above that I realized that the red cut to white brush pot from the MFA, shown above that, illustrates the same Chinese maxim. I even went back to the MFA web site to make sure they hadn’t given an explanation of the iconography. They hadn’t. But why should they? Isn’t it enough that the museum in Boston offers the world such a incredibly visual cornucopia? I think it is. Besides, if they told us everything at the beginning it would deprive us of all of those personalized epiphanies which make us feel so good. You know, those wonderful “Aha!” moments.

Look carefully – There is another porcelain piece in Boston, a bowl from the Yongzheng period (1722-35), showing bats flying over waves. The waves aren’t so obvious at first glance, but if you take more than a fraction of a second to scan this bowl you will see that they are definitely there near the bottom.

One of the most remarkable items found at the Met – or anywhere for that matter – is a porcelain bowl made to look just like a carved lacquer one. This is an artistic conceit which goes way beyond either lacquer carving or the perfection of the best porcelain. Dating from the 18th century it is art and craft raised to the most supreme level – in my opinion of course.

There are many pieces meant to fool the eye, but I have only encountered two other examples over the years which rise to this level of expertise. Only two that I am aware of. In the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City there is an incredible collection of Chinese furniture. There is one pair of chairs which at first glance appear to be constructed of bamboo, but are in fact carved from rosewood meant to look like bamboo. A second pair of chairs look like they are constructed of rosewood, but – you got it – are actually made of bamboo which is doctored in such a way as to look like rosewood.

In 2011 it is reported that 410,000 people visited the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Naturally, only a fraction of that number would have visited the room devoted mainly to Chinese furniture. Let’s guess, maybe 35 to 50,000 . That might be a bit too high, but, what the heck, let’s go with it. My guess is that of those up to 50,000 there were fewer than 100 who realized that they were looking a bamboo when it was really rosewood and vice versa. Of course, if there is labeling spelling it out clearly then the numbers could be somewhat higher – but not by much probably. It is amazing how much is overlooked by the ordinary visitor, but… sigh… such is the way of the world. It is not completely their fault. Lucky those who delve a little deeper.

Blue bats ain’t bad either – After the conquest of northern China by the Mongol in the 13th century blue and white porcelain decorations became popular and have remained so ever since. Below is a photo of a dish from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This one dates from the reign of Xianfeng (1851-61) and was meant for use in the imperial palace. It is decorated with bats, swastikas and the character shou‘. Of course, as I mentioned above the bats mean happiness while the other two characters mean something akin to ‘may you live a long life.’ The swatiska stands for the Chinese character ‘wan’ (萬) -pronounced with a falling tone –  which means ten thousand and the shou stands for longevity.

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Swastikas and bats – I don’t know about you, but I am amazed at how two images like swastikas and bats make such bad impressions in one culture while they are viewed positively in another. Of course, I understand why these two symbols cause such a great visceral – at the least – reaction to so many people in the West. Since the rise of the Nazis swastikas have come to mean nothing but evil. However, prior to their ubiquitous use by the German National Socialists in the 1930s and 40s they meant nothing more than an innocuous design motif to most viewers. After that they almost always bring  a shudder to any decent individual who knows what suffering accompanied that symbol.

If you can divorce yourself from what you already know and feel you may get a better sense of what bats and swastikas have meant to the people of Asia – particularly those of the Indian subcontinent, China, Korea and Japan. Often paired together both motifs are simply meant to increase their positive force to do and bring good. Below is a woman’s theatrical costume from the collection of the Met in New York. It is dated to the 18th century, but has designs elements which go back to the time of the Ming dynasty. The detail shows the bats from one sleeve in close proximity to red swastikas and other advantageous symbols like the eternal knot, etc. (detail)

On snuff bottles, too – Below are two examples made of glass from the Victoria and Albert Museum. The stopper in the one on the left is carved from nephrite.

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London   

On clothing – There is a beautiful ceremonial woman’s robe in the collection of the Met which they even call “The Bat Medallion Robe“. The curatorial file notes that this robe decorated with bats is less formal than the dragon robe. It would be worn on special occasions like birthdays. It is from the 18th century and is made of silk and metallic thread on silk satin. (2 details shown below)


Another woman’s robe, this one from the collection in Boston and dating from the late 19th century, also has medallions formed on the outside  by the ‘enfolding’ linked wings of bats.

In Boston there is a piece of embroidered fabric from a skirt made in ca. 1860-70. It shows blue bats, peaches and ‘hands of Buddha‘, a kind of citron and other fruit.   

There is an embroidered sleeve fragment, also from the collection in Boston, dated to the 1860s which shows both pink and blue bats.

Bats on a ruyi (如意) or wish fungus staff – Below is a ruyi staff from the collection of the Freer/Sackler Museum in D.C. The image on the right is my enlargement showing a larger detail of the bats on the right and left made from turquoise. The top and bottom decorations look like peaches. It dates from the reign of Qianlong (乾隆: 1736-95). [I will address the meaning of the ruyi later if I remember.]

   © The Smithsonian – Freer Sackler Galleries   

A little known fact – if there is such a thing as facts – Patricia Bjaaland Welch tells us in her Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery says: “Butterflies are sometimes used instead of bats. Cammann tells us that ‘in South China – particularly Hunan – the other word for butterfly, hu, is pronounced exactly like the word fu meaning happiness. So robes made there often had the butterfly instead of the bat, in which case it meant both happiness and longevity.’ ”

There is a portrait in the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts of a man named Eshing who dealt in tea and silk in Canton, China at the beginning of the nineteenth century. From the look of it he was extremely successful. Either he or the painter chose to pose him in a traditional costume. However, it is the attached panel (badge?) on his lower chest which interests me the most because it portrays a large bird (a crane? – a symbol of longevity)  along with red bats, multi-colored clouds, waves and other propitious items like coral. This panel seems to reinforce Eshing’s sense of self and his remarkable success.


Did you know, I didn’t that there was no early pictograph for bats in ancient China. There were pictographs for horses, oxen, sheep and birds, but nada for bats. But according to sources, bats were alone in this. They were joined by cicadas, spiders, butterflies, crickets and other insects.


On March 22, 2016 while looking through thousands of images from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston I ran across this incredible item which I had never seen before. In fact, I have never seen anything else even remotely like it. It is too good not to let you see it too.

Qianlong (1736-95), Qing dynasty, bat-shaped vessel,
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


To those of you unfamiliar with my working methods I always start out slowly and try to keep filling in the gaps. That is true here and I hope you will come back often to see what has been added. I will try not to disappoint you.

I believe it was Claude Lévi-Strauss who was once asked what he thought of the compositions of Arnold Schoenberg. He said that Schoenberg reminded him of the captain of a great ocean liner who was able to get his vessel filled with passengers out onto the open seas, but never seemed capable of steering them back into port. That is how I see my posts. I can try to take you on a great cruise and hope you will do nothing but enjoy yourselves, but for the life of me I can’t ever seem to get you back to the place where we started. Oh well… Bon voyage. Enjoy the journey if you can.


  1. I don’t know if my comment is going to be accepted. I don’t belong to WordPress yet. I very much enjoyed this narrative and the images!! I came here looking for information about orange bats on a
    Chinese porcelain pendant I just bought at Goodwill. The kind of look like a cross between clouds and bats. Very linear in style. The bats looks weird!! At first I thought they were ghost bats.

    Comment by Judith Shea — July 17, 2013 @ 6:52 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you for the wonderful bat images! I’ll have to explore the MFA more carefully and try to find some of these!

    Comment by Jane Wiley — May 6, 2016 @ 3:20 pm | Reply

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