Five Blessings

Coded Messages in Chinese Art

8 April 2011 - 7 August 2011


Westerners have long been irresistibly attracted by the China conjured up in travellers’ tales, engravings, paintings and the various products and objects arriving from this distant land. The image gradually took shape of a far-flung empire capable of creating the most wondrous marvels, exquisite silks and lacquerware, gorgeous enamels and jades, delicate ceramics. The heady whiff of the exotic lingered over decorations whose meaning could never fully be grasped.

Based on age-old thought processes, the compositions teem with subtle word games designed to delight the informed observer but which remain impenetrable to the outsider. This exhibition offers a fresh survey of the Chinese decorative repertoire by providing the cultural and linguistic perspective necessary to its understanding, yet without breaking the magic spell it casts.

This iconography expresses the desire that five blessings in particular be fulfilled: longevity, marital harmony, social promotion, prosperity, and good fortune. The keys used to decipher the meanings underlying this traditional decoration also shed light on the myriad images found in contemporary logos and advertisements.