There are many symbols in Chinese culture that are often missed by people who do not know what they are looking for. The meanings of designs on some Chinese objects are meant to be ‘read’.
There are symbols for good fortune, happiness, health and long life etc. Some of these relate to the real qualities of objects in the natural world: plum blossom is the first flower to bloom in China in the spring so people thought of it as a symbol of renewal. Lotus flowers are a symbol of purity because they grow out of the mud, but have the most beautiful flowers.
Some symbols on the other hand relate to the beliefs and legends about objects. For example people thought that eating peaches would grant long life. There is a legend that the Queen Mother of the West grew peaches in her garden in heaven that made those who ate them immortal.
Yet other symbols use the sounds of words. For example the Chinese word for bat (fu) sounds the same as the word for happiness (fu), so bats in Chinese designs show a wish for happiness. An upside down bat means ‘happiness has arrived’, and a red bat is very lucky indeed, because red is a lucky colour. Five bats show the 5 blessings: old age, wealth, health, love of virtue and a natural death.
Sometimes several symbols are used to together to form a ‘rebus’ or visual pun, which can only be understood by someone who speaks Chinese. An eagle (ying) shown with a bear (xiong) makes the word yingxiong which means ‘heroic’ in Chinese.