Understanding Decorative Motifs on Chinese Porcelain

All Grades, Arts & Literature, Society Lesson or Unit Plan

This hands-on activity is designed to be an inexpensive way for students to learn and appreciate the cultural significance of select symbols as they appear on Chinese porcelains.

Title: China’s ‘China’: Understanding Decorative Motifs on Chinese Porcelain
Author: Teach China staff (with invaluable input from Ms. Pearl Lau)
Subject Area: Visual Arts, Social Studies
Grade Level: K-12 (this lesson plan is easily adaptable to various learning levels)
Time Required: One 40 minute class session
Standards: New York State Blueprint For Teaching and Learning in Visual Arts: Grades PreK-12

I. Art Making:
The art-making strands indicate what students should be able to accomplish at the end of benchmark years: second, fifth, eight, and twelfth grades. These charts provide “snapshots” of the learning process—the skills, knowledge, and appreciation that should be mastered in selected areas and how these are honed as students mature.

II. Making Connections:
This strand provides social, cultural, and historical contexts in which students may understand art, while indicating some links to other disciplines in the curriculum. Students are expected to apply knowledge and skills learned in the art class to assist them in interpreting the world around them.

III. Community and Cultural Resources:
New York City is rich in community and cultural resources. Students should be actively engaged with the institutions, schools, studios, community-based organizations, libraries, exhibitions, and artists that contribute to the cultural and economic vitality of the city.

Keywords/Vocabulary: Homophone: a homophone is a word that sounds like another word (for example, in English “yew” (a type of tree) and “you”). Homophones can offer therefore be used as a pun in a literary work or in a work of art. Rebus: a rebus is a visual representation of words by pictures and objects whose names resemble the intended word in sound (so the picture of an “eye” might be used in a work of art or a visual puzzle to represent the word “I”).
Essential Question(s):
  • What is the cultural significance of recurring images on Chinese porcelain that was traded and prized throughout the world from the 15th century and beyond?
Learning Objectives/Goals/Aims:
  • This hands-on activity is designed to be an inexpensive way for students to learn and appreciate the cultural significance of select symbols as they appear on Chinese porcelains.
Introduction: When you look at a particular Chinese porcelain piece, the colorful patterns of plants and animals might seem delicate and pleasing but is the choice of the plant or animal in any way significant? From a Chinese cultural perspective, the choice of what adorns a plate or vase might make a difference in who you give that item to and why.The Chinese language has many homophones (or homonyms). A homophone is a word that sounds like another word but has a different meaning (an English example would be “would” and “wood,” or a “yew” and “you”). In Chinese art (including porcelain ware), what is often depicted is a symbol for something else precisely because it is a homophone. These symbolic depictions of one thing for another because it sounds like the word for another thing can create recurring motifs in Chinese porcelain art. Examples include a bat (蝙蝠,bianfu) which is a homonym with “become prosperous” (變福,bianfu). In the porcelain bowl on the upper left, you see five bats (五蝠,wufu) which symbolizes “five blessings” (五福,wufu): health, wealth, virtue, long life, and a peaceful death. A Fish (魚, yu) is a homonym with “abundance” (餘, yu). You will find this motif on many porcelain bowls and jars, especially those that contain liquids.Besides homonyms, Chinese make frequent use of rebuses. A rebus is a visual puzzle that represents words and phrases through pictures (an English example would be an eye representing “I”). These can be quite complicated and ingenious in Chinese art. The following is a selection of some symbols and rebuses that you will find on Chinese porcelains and other artwork:

English Word Symbolism Mandarin pinyin Pronunciation
Cat Octogenarian māo
Clouds Fortune yún
Crab Harmony xiè
Dragon Prosperity lóng
Mandarin Ducks Happy marriage yuānyāng
Bat Happy marriage yuānyāng
5 Bats 5 blessings: wŭ fú
Good life
Long life
Natural death
Pine Tree Nobility/longevity sōng
Pine Tree Nobility/longevity sōng
Plum Perseverance meíhūa
Plum Blossom Perseverance meíhūa
Bamboo Scholarly integrity zhú
Butterfly Long life dié
Eagle & Bear Together these symbolize a hero (yingxiong) yīng & xióng
Fish Abundance

You can find more examples of Chinese symbols at www.primaltrek.com/impliedmeaning.html

For a fuller history of Chinese porcelain, visit China Institute’s online resource collection “China’s ‘China’: Porcelain’s Contribution to World History and Culture” at www.China360online.org

Procedure/Pedagogical Technique/Instructional Strategy: 

After students reviews either in class or outside of class China Institute’s online resource collection “China’s ‘China’: Porcelain’s Contribution to World History and Culture” (available at www.China360online.org) which gives an account of the importance of understanding porcelain from a geographic, historical, material cultural, and societal perspectives, the teacher can explain that students will be drawing their own blue-and-white (or also incorporate red) designs onto a plate and/or bowl to get an appreciation of what is significant about various motifs on Chinese porcelains.Students can review various motifs online at the National Palace Museum site “New Era of Ornamentation: 1350-1521” (http://www.npm.gov.tw/exh95/ming/exhibition_en/en.html) or at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online thematic essay “East and West: Chinese Export Porcelain” (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ewpor/hd_ewpor.htm) in order to get an idea of the look of various porcelain decorative motifs. Alternatively, teachers could print out examples for students to refer to as they draw their own copy of chosen motifs.

Teachers then should distribute white Chinet paper plates and bowls that will be used to create a decorative design. Students should also get one blue washable Crayola Broad Line marker for drawing their designs. The class can opt to first draw a stencil version of motifs (i.e. a bat) or chose to draw free hand. Students should also have access to bamboo calligraphy brushes and a cup of water in order to gently wash the blue ink into the plate/bowl to create a more textured approach. Students should be encouraged to think not just about the dominant motif (or motifs) in their design, but to pay attention to drawing symmetrical border designs as well. Students should also think about how to balance the use of color while still retaining the field of white in the back-ground to achieve an effective blue-and-white design piece.

Discussion Points/ GroupInteraction: While the group is working on individual pieces, have students discuss what would be an appropriate person to give their plate/bowl to and/or where (or on what occasion) would the piece be most appropriately displayed or used. Similarly, groups could make a set of pieces that combine motifs that cater to a specific event (i.e. a wedding or a birthday for a grandmother, etc.). This will help students to focus on the cultural significance of the design as well as the technical quality of the design.
Assessment: At the end of the class, each student should attach an index card on the bottom of their piece with their name, the motif they drew, what is the cultural significance of that motif in Chinese culture and why they chose that motif in particular. An extension of the exercise is to assign a grade appropriate way of introducing the motif and its cultural significance by writing a short essay and/or letter to an intended recipient that would reflect the cultural significance of the motif as well.
Closure:  Students should be encouraged to display their works collectively in a class curated display around the classroom.
Instructional Resources/ Materials: For this exercise, teachers will need:

  • Various sizes of paper Chinet classic white dinner plates and bowls
  • Non-toxic Broad Line blue Crayola markers (red can also be used)
  • Bamboo calligraphy brushes
  • Water
  • Construction paper (if stencils will be designed and used)
  • Scissors (if stencils will be designed and used)
Resource Type: Lesson Plan
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, Society Lesson or Unit Plan


Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.