Longevity, wealth, fertility...all key concerns for so many cultures including the Chinese Peranakans! This particular kind of relief tile can be found in some old shophouses and bungalows owned by the Chinese Peranakans in Singapore and elsewhere. Designed mainly by Japanese manufacturers such as Danto Tile Works, these tiles feature motifs typically considered auspicious in Chinese culture. Fruits and flowers symbolising fertility are naturally very common! Considering the mortality rate of both adults and children in the 'old days', it's not surprising that many cultures turned to the gods in hope of happiness and health.
Here's a little list of what I understand to be the symbolism behind fruits, flowers and animals commonly used on these 'lucky' tiles. Most objects considered auspicious in Chinese culture are due to a combination of appearance, association and a play on words. As many words in Chinese sound the same unless written, it is interesting to learn how objects with similar sounds to desirable elements have been used for symbolic purposes over the centuries.
Peaches - A favourite with the Chinese for its association with long life or immorality. Also considered an auspicious fruit to give on birthdays. The God of Longevity, Lao Shouxing, carries a large peach. When depicted with a pomegranate and the finger citron, the trio are called the 'Three Abundances' - symbolising longevity, fertility and blessings.
Pomegranate - Besides containing many seeds, the Chinese word for this fruit sounds similar to the word for 'generations'. For this reason, pillowcases embroidered with pomegranates were traditionally given as wedding gifts.
Pineapples - commonly known as 'bolou', with the 'bo' meaning 'abundance' and 'richness'. Popular in southern China and Singapore where they grow in warmer weather, this tropical fruit can often been seen during Chinese Lunar New Year.
Strawberries & Grapes - As these are cold-weather fruits and definitely not usually seen in the tropics, I think this is an example of typical Chinese Peranakan 'borrowing' from European sources. However, with both kinds of fruit having lots of seeds, they fit in nicely in the theme of fertility!
Finger citron - Also known as 'Buddha's Hand', this citron variety sounds similar to the word for 'happiness' and 'longevity'. It certainly is an unusual looking fruit!
I hope this short introduction gives you a better insight into the rich world of Chinese symbolism!
Artwork Showcase: Trade Tile - Wealth & Luck
This handmade print is based on the story of Peranakan craftsmen sent to Japan to create relief wall tiles for local Chinese Peranakan customers in Singapore.
'Chinese Art - A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery' by Patricia Bjaaland Welch
'Origins of Chinese Auspicious Symbols' by Asiapac Culture