With their furry, snub-nosed faces, menacing outstretched wings and trademark screeching, bats are not usually the first symbol that comes to mind in the West for glad tidings or good fortune. In China however, bats and the motifs they inspire quite literally swarm traditional decorative arts. Thanks to the word for bat, or fu, which shares the same sound as the ‘wish for good fortune,’ bats have come to represent good luck in Chinese culture and take their place among other auspicious creatures such as dragons, deer, magpies, boars, spiders and cats. Whether highly stylized, naturalistic or overly elaborate, bats are used to decorate everything, from teapots to embroidery, belt buckles and utensils, to bowls and wall hangings.
Typically shown are five Chinese bats – representing the ‘Five Blessings’ or ‘Five Happinesses’ – which encompass health, longevity, virtue, wealth and a natural death. Five bats are also commonly shown with ripe peaches, another symbol for longevity or immortality, to create an aesthetically beautiful and interesting motif that can appeal to the most curious and eclectic of decorative arts enthusiasts. Peaches, believed to have grown in the orchard of ‘The Queen Mother of the West’ are one of the most widely used symbols in Chinese art. Despite the strange pairing that deserves a second glance when encountered in decorative arts, peaches and bats have come to represent immense good fortune and health.
Another numerical grouping also deemed auspicious is eight bats, which represent The Eight Immortals, who can bestow life or destroy it with their chosen power. Revered by Taoists and secular Chinese society alike, The Eight Immortals are believed to know the secrets of nature, the root of their immortality, and represent each of the sexes, conditions and stations in an individual life; wealth, poverty, age and youth, respectively. At both a force for good and for evil, The Eight Immortals have become the powerful inspiration for folktales, scholarly literature and fine and decorative arts along with the auspicious animals chosen to represent them, such as the aforementioned bat.
Bats have long been associated with such tidings and characteristics in Chinese history, particularly when paired with another important element in Chinese art and culture, the color red. In Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, Patricia Bjaaland Welch writes that “red bats became popular on late Ming & Qing dynasty ceramics and textiles to symbolize extensive good luck, as the phoneme hong means both ‘red’ and ‘vast, abundant.’” These increased good luck charms are typically depicted swarming a sky full of clouds, as ‘bats descend from the sky’ and ‘happiness descends from heaven’ are interchangeable linguistically. These nocturnal creatures should then be welcomed with enthusiasm by the most astute of collectors, not merely associated with Dracula and things that go ‘bump in the night,’ whether red, black, upside down or simply taking flight.