BirdLecture: The Classical Birds of Chinese Art

with Patricia Bjaaland Welch

Traditional Chinese thought, which believed all things should conform to groups of five, categorized animals into five classes: animals with feathers, animals with hair, animals with shells, animals with scales, and naked animals (which included man). In this presentation, Patricia Bjaaland Welch introduced us to the fascinating world of the first category: animals with feathers, as represented in Chinese Art.

Beginning with the famous “red bird of the south”, she led us through the evolution of birds in Chinese art from their depiction during the Neolithic period when all birds featured prominent eyes, large crests, curved beaks and long tails to modern-day cranes.
Along the journey, we learned how scholars believed the “theory of five” evolved from the four original directions and how birds came to be associated with the sun.
Ravens, cocks, cranes, eagles, magpies, swallows and of course the best-known Chinese bird of them all, the phoenix, were discussed. And while some birds are associated with the qualities they themselves exhibit (for example, eagles with bravery and mandarin ducks with fidelity), we also learned how some birds have more hidden symbolic meanings through the various homophones that their names resemble (for example, cranes with “peace and harmony”).

No knowledge of Chinese was required to enjoy this colorfully illustrated talk, but some Chinese names and characters were included for those in the audience who already have knowledge of Chinese language and culture.

Patricia Bjaaland Welch was a University Lecturer on Chinese religion and philosophy at Boston University. She now works in the corporate world but is an independent scholar in the area of Chinese art and symbols. An active docent at Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum, she is also the author of Oxford University Press’ Chinese New Year, and the newly published work: Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery (Tuttle/Periplus 2008).

7pm, 6 August 2008

Ixora Room, Peranakan Museum, Armenian Street