Menagerie of Meaning

Chinese animal paintings roar, leap and fly into the Cincinnati Art Museum

When is a tiger not just a tiger? An eagle more than an eagle? When they’re painted as messages about social and political conditions, philosophies about leadership and cultural values. This was the case during the Chinese Imperial Court between the 11th and 19th centuries, when its painters used animals as symbols.

Many of the meanings of these images had been lost, but Hou-Mei Sung, curator of Asian art at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), has rediscovered them. She’s brought together over 10 years of research and more than 100 paintings in Roaring Tigers, Leaping Carp: Decoding the Symbolic Language of Chinese Animal Painting, which opens Friday and continues through Jan. 3.

This show is a rare — and I mean rare — opportunity.

“One of the things that make this show so special is that we’ve borrowed from three Asian museums and 14 major U.S. museums,” Sung says as she shows me around the in-progress installation. “It’s so hard to bring works like this together. All the paintings from China, except one, have never even been shown in their own museums.”

To reemphasize her point, no one has ever organized an exhibition of Chinese animal paintings. Not anywhere, even in China.

CAM has gathered the paintings from important collections that include New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. The paintings are large and stunning — some monochromatic, gestural and calligraphic; others colorful and precisely rendered. Exquisitely crafted ceramics and sculpture that include animal symbols complement the paintings.

The show begins by establishing expectations. An engraving of a 19th-century John James Audubon bird painting is compared to an 11th Century Chinese bird painting. Chinese art carries a completely different set of intentions than Western art, and this introduction serves to help viewers to understand this before taking in the exhibition.

A Guided Multimedia Tour with Hou-Mei Sung

Produced by Cameron Knight

“They should not look for a light source, or a vanishing point and the illusion of three-dimensional space,” Sung says. “The Chinese define animals in nature in a very specific way, through concepts like yin-yang cosmology. A tiger is not just a wild beast or animal, but almost a living symbol.” While Audubon tries to paint all the details of the bird, a Chinese painter would also suggest the season and encourage interaction with and contemplation on the message communicated in the image.

The largest section of the show delineates the evolution of several animal symbols, including eagles, cranes, wild geese, dragons, tigers, horses and fish. Events of political and social change affected the representation of animals stylistically and symbolically, so the show reveals each symbol’s development while simultaneously tracing Chinese history.

Painting wasn’t always used to communicate messages in China. Sung believes it began during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368 A.D.), when Mongolians and other foreigners ruled and the Chinese fell to the bottom of the social structure.

“The Chinese grew indignant and frustrated and began painting hidden messages to communicate their situation,” she says. “For example, a horse was used to signify the Chinese scholar, but a skinny horse became a scholar languishing under the Mongolian rule. Only the Chinese would have understood these messages.” This use of visual symbolic language carried over into the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 A.D.) during the reconstruction of the Chinese court.

The exhibition represents important discoveries by Sung, who spent about two years researching each animal symbol.

“You really need to spend a lot of time reading rare books, written by scholars at the time the paintings were being made,” she says. “It’s really a lot of reconstruction. You have to have evidence to support why each meaning applied at a certain time.”

According to CAM Director Aaron Betsky in a written release, “Through Dr. Sung’s research, we can now see how the use of animal forms in Chinese art was the basis of a language structure so sophisticated that even the posing of an animal could signal discrete meanings.”

For the first time, Sung connected Ming dynasty documents with animal paintings that had been dissociated from their original meanings.

“This was the most exciting for me, because when I discovered a message, nobody else knew about it,” Sung says.

She points to the example of a painting of eagles and magpies.

“When I first saw this painting at the British Museum, it seemed strange to me, because there was this eagle — a bird of prey — high up on a cliff, and these little birds calling his attention,” she says. “This is not going to happen in nature, so I knew there was some sort of human message there.”

Later, Sung found in Ming records that referenced a painting combining eagles, magpies and a waterfall connected to the didactic phrase, “the wise ruler listens to admonition.”

Chinese words carry multiple meanings depending on context, so painters often used puns to carry the message.

“When I matched the record with the existing paintings and kept looking in Japan, Taiwan, the U.S. and Europe, I found 11 paintings, all just called ‘Eagle and Magpies.’ Their meanings had been lost. That’s why it was so exciting to discover these messages. And there are many like that.”

ROARING TIGERS, LEAPING CARP opens Friday and continues through Jan. 3. Get exhibition and museum details here.