In Chinese culture, bats are a symbol of luck and good fortune.

05.22.24

By Paul Hormick

In many Western cultures, people can be fearful of bats, and bats are often used in movies and television to represent sinister or evil elements. In China things couldn’t be more different. Throughout the entire country and for almost two thousand years bats have been symbols of good luck, adorning everything from furniture and belt buckles to hairpins and teapots. Westerners are familiar with depictions of dragons in Chinese art, but bats might be even more common. 

Westerners are familiar with depictions of dragons in Chinese art, but bats might be even more common.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ubiquitous Good Fortune  

Dr. Beth Green, a psychotherapist practicing in San Diego, California, lived in Taiwan for several years. During her time there, she saw bat symbols in artwork, clothing, and the façades of buildings. “You’ll even see them in picture frames,” she says. Dr. Green further explains bats became symbols of luck because the words for “bat” and “luck” are Chinese homonyms. Both are “fu” (pronounced fu). 

As Patricia Bjaaland Welch explains in Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery all recurring designs and images in Chinese artwork have meaning. For example, the commonly depicted dragons convey the idea of power. In the West, we might find correspondence in the Madonna and Child motif of fifteenth century Florentine art, which represents faith and salvation. Or we might look to the representations of commerce and industry in the twentieth century murals of Diego Rivera and his acolytes. 

Many images and symbols in China have been passed down for centuries. The association of bats with good luck dates back two millennia to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE—220 CE). Over the centuries, depictions of bats have become extremely stylized, so much so that a bat adorning a teacup or gown might look more like a boomerang in a Star Wars movie than a bat. In some cases, people in China often confuse bats in artwork with butterflies or even mushrooms.i 

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Festive Symbolism  

Bats come out in full for special occasions in China. In the hope of bringing good luck and happiness, families hang bat-shaped lanterns in their homes and public places during the Mid-Autumn Festival, the traditional Chinese harvest festival. The festival is also a time for making and eating bat-shaped pastries. Bats are often depicted flying around a peach tree in Chinese artwork. This theme is often displayed during the celebration of Chinese New Year in late January or February. 

Two bats facing each other means “double luck,” and the depiction of two bats on a gift’s wrapping sends a message of well wishes and good fortune. Bats often accompany two butterflies, a symbol of marital bliss, on many wedding presents in China. 

Five is a cardinal number in Chinese culture, and a grouping of five bats is called Wu Fu, or the Five Blessings, which are Virtue, Health, Long Life, Wealth, and having a Peaceful Death. Artwork will sometimes include Wu Fu as a group of five flying bats, but the five bats are often stylized and depicted encircling the symbol for prosperity. Five stylized bats sometimes surround a round box, a symbol of marital blessings and harmony, a motif often displayed on wedding gifts.  

Phonetic Symbiosis 

A homonym relationship between the Chinese words for “upside down” and “arrive” leads to the depiction of upside-down bats. The intended meaning of this inverted display is “may happiness descend to you from heaven.”ii The Chinese character for Fu ( ) also has a tradition of being written upside down, which the Chinese also associate with the lives of bats, who roost upside down. The Chinese further play with this topsy-turvy homonymic relationship, sometimes saying, “Your fu character is upside down,” which is pronounced the same as, “Your luck has arrived.” 

Since the sixteenth century, Chinese culture has associated bats with longevity, and bats themselves are believed to live for a very long time. According to the Pén Ts‘ao, a classic text of Chinese medicine, in certain hillside caverns there are bats that shine like silver, feed on stalactites, and live to be a thousand years old.iii 

Enhancing the luck of bats by combining them with other symbols can seem almost endless. Pumpkins and gourds are associated with success as well as fertility. Believing it brought them good luck with conception, concubines during the Qing Dynasty (1644—1912) wore hairpins adorned with bats and gourds. iv Bats are often depicted flying in or around stylized clouds, as the Chinese words for cloud and good fortune are homophones. v A red bat is especially lucky as well, because red is believed to ward off evil. Perhaps the best luck you can hope for is from a bat paired with a coin. This combination means your luck is so good it’s practically staring you in the face.vi 

As bats in Western hemisphere often evoke fear and thoughts of evil, it’s encouraging to know other cultures associate bats with good fortune and adorn art, clothing, and just about everything with bat imagery. So, the next time you view an Asian collection at an art museum or come in contact with other artifacts from China, try to see if you can find the lucky bats. 

[1-2,4-5] Welch, Patricia Bjaaland Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery Tuttle Publishing 2008

[3,6] Williams, C.A.S. Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives Dover Publications (3rd edition) 1976

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