Symbolic Inversions in Chinese Art

Teapot with black peony blossoms and date of 1913; porcelain; British Museum.

Alfreda Murck
October 13, 2022; 6-7pm

807 Schermerhorn Hall



Authors and artists in most cultures have expressed opinions through symbolic inversions: verbal or visual expressions of a world turned upside down (mundus inversus). In China it was sometimes referred to as “black and white reversed” (黑白颠倒 heibai diandao). Symbolic inversions allowed artists to express disappointment at lack of success, to comment on an injustice, or to contradict social norms.

What did depictions of a world turned upside down look like? This lecture will offer six examples of poets and painters presenting symbolic reversals. The early poetry anthology The Songs of Chu has a poet asking, “Why should the birds gather in the duckweed? What are the fishing nets doing in the treetops?” Others who asserted symbolic inversions included Su Shi, a Buddhist monk painting plum blossoms for an exiled official, the early Republican-era ceramicist Luo Fatai, and a twenty-first century installation artist.