Coping with Bats
Apart from the colorful depictions of coronavirus particles, with their round bodies studded with barbs, we lack any eye-catching symbols, much less positive designs which boost our spirits, to represent this endless, depressing, time. This is where bats come in.
Although we are taught that bats are beneficial and indeed admirable members of our society, many people loathe them. Standard depictions in Western art reflect this negative emotional reaction, linking them with witches, scudding clouds under a full moon, intuited howls of wolves in the distance, the very stuff of a Halloween horror tale.
How differently bats are regarded in Asian culture! Appraisers are likely to encounter bat symbolism when appraising Asian furniture, jades, ceramics, paintings, textiles, cloisonné, and other categories.
The reason for the ubiquitous bat designs in Asian art relates to their homophonic status based on the Chinese language – just as the duos of “deer” and “good luck”*, “cat” and “80th birthday”, “quail and “peace” are pronounced the same (give or take a tone), in Chinese, so too the second character in the name for “bats”, “bianfu”, has a phonetic parallel in one of the main words for “good fortune”, “fu”. Though these parallels are written entirely differently, art symbolism takes advantage of homophone coincidence, and thus a bat design comes to suggest good fortune. (1)
One of the most famous instances of this auspicious concept is in the famous combined design of the “Wufu”, five bats flittering around the character for longevity, “shou”. (2) This is a potent image, representing the twin concepts of long life and good luck. The five bats symbolize the “Five Blessings”, which include longevity, wealth, good health, love of virtue, and a peaceful death. If the bats are red, this adds a related wish for widespread good fortune, red being the color of good luck.
Bats usually do not appear singly; they will be associated with their four Wufu mates, or the God of Longevity, or a peach of immortality or other auspicious symbol. If an appraiser, alerted to the presence of one bat can discover four more, then the artwork bears a symbolically significant design. One bat may be discovered flying upside down, (in effect, dive-bombing) which relates to a phonetic concept of good luck arriving quickly, or blessings descending from heaven. Several of the ways in which this combined, potent, symbol system can appear in art are illustrated below.
Note: the ISA Instructors Committee has specialists in many areas, from experts in legal, linguistic, and ISA/USPAP requirements for appraisers to specialists in some aspect of art media such as prints to culturally related material, such as Japanese prints and Chinese ceramics. This short note does not have the gravitas of the recent wonderful ISA newsletter columns with their updates and clarifications on term usage (value in-place, limiting conditions, etc.), all so important and useful. With Covid19 stubbornly hanging around, though, somehow the time seems ripe for pointing out a major device in Asian art which can be useful for appraisers to recognize and which is taught in our ISA Asian art courses and webinars, and also to suggest that we need to have some broadly-recognizable designs for summarizing our current crisis, as East Asia did centuries ago with the development of the both aspirational and realistic “Wufu” symbol.
(1) See upcoming sale at Sotheby’s New York (09/22/20), “Junkunc: Chinese Jade Carvings,” #240, “Deer and Bat” carving, est. $20-30,000.00; often bats are mistaken for the more popular and elegant butterflies with their longer wings and own symbolic personalities.
(2) Wufu symbol, illustrated two ways; and detail of Chinese textile, late 18th-early 19th c., main panel portraying “Queen Mother of the West Descending On Her Carriage Into the Peach Garden of Immortality”; here, partial view of the top red ground panel with several of the one hundred ways in which “shou,” longevity, can be written, together with border devices of pink-red flying bats. Private collection. For a quick reference to this theme, see “Longevity in Chinese Art”, illustrated short essay in Heilbrunn, “Timeline of Art History”, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By, Daphne L. Rosenzweig, PhD, ISA CAPP, Life Member