With billions of cicadas about to plague America, to the Chinese they have traditionally been a symbol of immortality and longevity.

Chinese gentry once decorated their hats with a jade cicada, 蝉 chan, in the belief they would be considered a man of principle; the fact the cicada climbs to the top of trees and  drinks the morning dew, it also symbolises unpretentiousness  – perhaps a conflict of interests there!

In more modern times, the cicada has perhaps acquired a more meaningful connotation. Because it is intent on reaching the top of a tree, when it finally arrives there it makes that familiar loud noise, yiming jingren 鳴驚人, which means “ to amaze the world with a single brilliant feat” – what many a Chinese person might aspire to.

So it made me smile today when details of this tankard from the Canton retail firm of Lee Ching 利昇 arrived in my inbox on cue, as it were. Made in the last quarter of the 19th century, it is double skinned in order to mask the reverse side of the repoussé work of the lavish exterior decoration

The combination of a cicada and bamboo has a very strong allegorical meaning; bamboo, zhu 竹, represents strength of character, endurance and uprightness. Its hollow stems conveys the message of humility and pureness of heart. A dense bamboo grove, as this tankard depicts, also may convey the meaning of filial piety – closeness to parents.  

Bamboo may also be seen as a homophone; zhu 竹 and the Chinese word zhu 祝,allows an image of bamboo to convey the meaning “wish” or “congratulate”. Add to the mix the cicada, the message becomes all the more stronger – possibly congratulations on being promoted or achieving excellent examination results.

I remain sceptical whether this will alter most Americans’ perception of the cicada, though, as the much-forecast plague hits!


PANDOLFINI CASA D’ASTE, Florence, Milan, Rome


Chinese Art – A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery; Patricia Bjaaland Welch, 2008

Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art; Terese Tse Bartholomew, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 2006

Smithsonian, National Museum of Asian Art –,to%20its%20fascinating%20life%20cycle.&text=In%20the%20Han%20dynasty%2C%20jade,hope%20for%20rebirth%20and%20immortality.

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