Chinese Symbols: Thank Your Lucky Clouds!

by Madam ZoZo

In Chinese culture, these fluffy tufts of meteorological cotton candy have some interesting cultural significance. Having spent some time in China and surrounding nations where the Chinese have historically had a major influence, I’ve noticed a recurring motif in the swirling, stylised representation of clouds appearing everywhere from jewellery to the 2008 Beijing Olympics torch. So I set out to uncover the history and meaning of this natural phenomena as a popular Chinese symbol.

Cloud symbolism in China

China is traditionally an agricultural nation and farmers associated downpours with plentiful harvests that would feed them and provide for their families. As rain bearers, clouds got the glory for bringing the wet stuff. Hence, clouds became linked to abundance. Yun, the word for cloud, sounds like the Chinese word for luck or fortune – therefore the two became intrinsically connected. Their lofty seat between earth and heaven gave clouds celestial status, with stories and artwork often depicting them as the vehicle of travelling deities – think Monkey Magic! Dragons, another powerful, auspicious Chinese symbol are often pictured hiding among storm clouds or creating whirling puffs with their breath.

Clouds appear on bronze vessels from the Zhou dynasty (circa 1046-221BCE) in a pattern known as yunwen and leiwen (cloud and thunder), which is also known as a meander or key in its western forms. From here forward in history, the cloud motif and pattern adorns decorative and wearable arts such as furniture, porcelain, jewellery and clothing.

Buddhist back scratcher

A cloud form melded with that of auspicious fungus known as lingzhi which often embellishes the end of a ruyi, a sceptre-like ornamental object symbolising good fortune. Ruyi, meaning “as one wishes,” began as a humble Buddhist monk’s back scratcher and was later elevated to a highly revered status symbol, becoming a purely decorative piece care of the Qing dynasty royals. These later ornamental Ruyi were carved out of valuable materials such as jade and decorated with carvings of auspicious symbols and precious stones. The Ruyi is where you will reliably see examples of lucky cloud designs.

Lucky cloud collar

The cloud collar is a four to eight-lobed pattern evolving from its earliest form decorating bronze mirrors of the 3rd century BC to become an actual collar for embellishing robes. The design is a miniature depiction of the entire universe, which the Chinese believed at one time to be the Earth as a flat square, topped with a domed sky. At the pinnacle of the skydome was thought to be heaven’s gate, marked by the pole star. The cloud collar circles the gate, dividing the earthly realm and the heavens. Therefore as a clothing accessory, it was worn around the neck to divide between the mortal body and the head which is considered to be the place that a person’s spirit resides. The cloud collar also embellished the neck of objects just as porcelain vessels.

Bronze yǒu with zigzag thunder pattern. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia
A white jade ruyi, photograph via Wichita Auctioneers.
Embroidered satin cloud collar - Bai, 2nd half of 20th century
Embroidered satin cloud collar of the Bai ethnic minority, on display in Shanghai Museum
Scabbard Chape with cloud pattern, 476BC
Scabbard Chape with cloud pattern, 476BC

The neighbouring Mongol’s took the concept and ran with it all the way to Persia, where examples are readily seen in antique clothing, art and decorative objects. The traditional Mongol tents known as yurts are inverted bowl shapes with a hole at the top for releasing smoke. The yurt’s design is considered to reflect the shape of the universe and therefore the tents of church dignitaries and royals were often decorated with cloud collars appliquéd around their blunt peak.

Auspicious anthem

Between 1913 and 1915 the Chinese adopted a provisional national anthem composed by a French musician in Beijing, entitled Song to the Auspicious Cloud. The title was recycled by Chinese composer Xiao Youmei for another anthem between 1921 to 1928. The lyrics of both songs were founded on Commentary of Shang Shu, the interpretation of a classic Chinese literary work dating back to 200-100BCE.

2008 Beijing Olympic torch

In modern China, the cloud is thought of largely as a traditional decorative motif without meaning. Yet as a tourist, its ubiquity drew my attention. In 2008 the Beijing Olympic torch was decorated with a continuous cloud design and named “Cloud of Promise.” The designers at Lenovo who submitted the winning torch aesthetic used the cloud motif to incorporate an element of ancient Chinese culture in their slick, contemporary design. This is a testament to the cloud as a symbol that may have less meaning in the world of today, but still represents historical values in a crowd-pleasing aesthetic.

Lucky clouds on a vase in Vietnam
Vase with Golden Cloud and Dragon Design, Jingdezhen Ware
2008 Beijing Olympic torch designed by Lenovo. Image copyright held by the International Olympic Committee
Auspicious gold clouds in textiles. Image copyright Victorian & Albert Museum

So next time you are cursing a heaven-sent soaking, think of life from the perspective of an old Chinese farmer. Those soggy grey billows bring life to crops, water to reservoirs and food to your plate, and that is fortunate after all.

Peace, love & inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo


Cover image by johnlsl on Flickr.

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