Across all cultures; from the mystical East to the Christian West; they have pondered deeply about the meaning of life. What is it about life that fascinates us all? Perhaps, we should go back to the root and question just why are we born? What purpose do we have in life? Are we the ones who set the purpose or is it predestined?
All cultures have tried time and time again to explain this. Despite the different interpretations, it seems that there is one image that dominates across many cultures which is a Tree of Life. For most, it is a mystical tree, seen as a symbol that unites the earth and sky. The roots are firmly planted in the ground, signifying stability, its branches and leaves grow towards the sky and its trunk, the being that unites both sky and earth.
In this sense, all beings on Earth are related to one another as we live on the same place which is a part of this Tree. Every being is equal and each species will give and depend on other species; such as how the grass feeds deer which is eaten by the tiger and eventually the tiger decomposes on the grass, feeding it with nutrients. Each person, each culture in the world is just a branch belonging to the same Tree.
For the Egyptians, the acacia tree is their tree of life. It is due to the tale of Isis and Osiris who emerged from an acacia tree which is the patron tree of Iusaaset, one of the early Egyptian goddesses with vague origins. In the Baha’i faith, their view on the tree of life is more symbolic. The Tree of Life is the embodiment of the Manifestation of God, the source of all spiritual good.
The Norse’s Tree of Life was called Yggdrasil. It grows in the middle of Asgard, an evergreen Ash tree that shades worlds with its branches. The Norse gods held all meetings and court under this tree. The god, Odin, hung himself from the branches of this tree to gain power over the runes and all their secrets. On the day he gained the knowledge, he fell, screaming.
A tree seems immortal as it can live for hundreds of years; so people view it as being able to bear witness to several generations of a family. Perhaps being the etymology of the phrase “family tree”. When a tree (which could mean the current generation) falls, the seed (sons and daughters) are left behind and they will spring forth to be new lives. A more direct interpretation would be the “branching out” of a family from one generation to another; like a grandparent to the father and then the daughter and etc.
In Chinese mythology, images depicting the Tree of Life bear a phoenix and a dragon with the dragon representing immortality. Such is the fascination with immortality with people in China that a tale in Taoism tells of a tree that produces a peach every three thousand years and the person that ate the peach will live on for another three thousand years. This tree is owned by Xi Wang Mu or “the Queen Mother of the West”. She is one of the oldest figures worshipped in Chinese history.
Trees are symbols of longevity and even immortality to the Chinese. Confucianism has deeply rooted itself into the heart of Chinese culture and this is one of the reasons why immortality or even possessing a long life is so important to the Chinese: The older one gets, the more that person is held in reverence; as living a long life equates having more wisdom and will hold a very high position in society.
Journeying to the West, the Tree of Life is one of the two main trees (besides the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) planted in the Garden of Eden. Catholic Christianity believes the Tree of Life represents the innocence of humanity that is free from all sin including the Original Sin. This is the state Adam and Eve were in before they displeased God. It is also associated with the tale of Eve taking an apple from a tree; coaxed by the serpent and biting into it, dooming mankind in sin.
In Proverbs 3:13-18 of the King James Version of the bible, it is said that those who attained wisdom, which is “more precious than rubies”, have gained the Tree of Life. In a further chapter of Proverbs 15:4, it describes one with a moral character is akin to having the key to the Tree of Life.
The Tree is also known as a ‘Creator’ whereby the tree provides protection with its great leafy shades and it provides fruit for the nourishment and regeneration of life.
Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution used a diagram of a tree to explain how each species is related to each other. He called this, the “Tree of Life” as well. Be that as it may, recent research is disputing this. Instead they call it “a web of life”. A “tree” is deemed as too simple as species crossbreed on a frequent basis.
All in all, the symbolism attributed with this tree is applicable to humans around the world, regardless of age, gender or culture. As we grow, we must have beliefs that are deeply rooted yet seek wisdom by branching out and finally, to connect them, we have a trunk (the mind and body).The Tree of Life resounds with a powerful message that is understood by all: unity.
From time immemorial, dragons have been worshipped by people as mythical beings that help to nurture their crops. They are believed to lord over rain, bodies of water, time, happiness and health, granting fair weather if they feel appreciated and droughts or floods if they are spurned.
As immortal creatures, they are symbols of intelligence, immortality and wisdom. Following the roots of Confucianism in China, the older one gets, the wiser one is. As the dragon is immortal, it would mean that the dragon is full of wisdom. A pearl that is just out of the reach of the dragon; usually depicted below the chin or near the mouth, sometimes none at all; is said to be the power source of the dragon and without it, the dragon cannot ascent to heaven. The pearl is a synonym for wisdom. Some might interpret it to mean with wisdom, you can ascend to heaven and wisdom is power.
The dragons are also a symbol of fertility as it brings about fertile fields and a good crop. Subsequently being a symbol for happiness as well as the community will get a good harvest.
The dragon also represents an abundance of energy, partly due to its yang connotations in Taoism. As no one rivals the command of the dragon, not even the emperor of China, the dragon is associated with leadership skills as well. It also represents enlightenment, optimism and success as dragons are benevolent and keep their promises. As such, a dragon provides good fortune in health, wealth as well as living a long prosperous life.
A dragon also symbolizes auspiciousness which means one will be blessed with success, be prosperous, fortunate and Lady Luck will smile upon that person. That person will be wealthy, not just specifically in monetary terms. Dragons also function to keep evil spirits at bay which will protect you from harm or enemies.
The practice of Feng Shui highly respects the dragon. The dragon is believed to bring fame, improve your career and elevate your reputation. An image of a pregnant dragon is a symbol that future growth and expansion is on its way; usually in regards with the expansion of a company. According to Feng Shui principles, an image of a dragon placed in the fame area of home or rather, the spot that you can identify with or a home office is most effective in bringing in all the benefits a dragon gives.
Symbolizing rebirth and immortality, the phoenix is often referred to as the “King of Birds”. It embodies the 5 virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and sincerity. Each part of its body comprises of various elements that make up the entire cosmos. It has:
- The head of a cock symbolizing the sun
- The back of a swallow which represents the crescent moon
- The wings as the wind
- The tail as the representative of trees and flowers
- The feet as the earth
The Chinese concept of the phoenix is unlike the European version. The Feng Huang (鳳凰) is more of a chimera as according to the Erya (爾雅) ，the oldest Chinese dictionary known; it has the beak of a rooster, the face of a swallow, the forehead of a fowl, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, the hindquarters of a stag and the tail of a fish. Despite that, modern interpretations of the Feng Huang seem to be more birdlike, resembling a combination of a peacock and a rooster. As a symbol of the fire element, the phoenix burns bright and attracts attention thus bringing fame and glory to a person.
Though there are male and female counterparts of the phoenix, it is more commonly associated with femininity because it is paired with the dragon, an embodiment of masculinity. The phoenix represents beauty, delicate manners and peace. A phoenix was also the symbol of a righteous, honest and trustworthy person in ancient China. It is commonly carved on the pillars of houses or became decorative objects back then, telling passers-by that the people who dwell in this house are decent and upright.
A balanced pair – The Dragon and the Phoenix
When a dragon and a phoenix come together, they are the epitome of yin and yang. Together, they achieve an ideal balance with the dragon symbolizing yang energy embodying the sun, masculinity and light. The phoenix is seen as the yin to the dragon’s yang, symbolizing the night, femininity and darkness.
These two mythical creatures hold prestige in the royal court of China as well with the emperor using a dragon to represent himself. The phoenix will be used by the empress. Both these creatures are used exclusively to decorate the clothes of the emperor and empress as a sign of their royal status and to distinguish themselves from the commoners. No one else is allowed to use it on their clothes and if they were found out, they will be severely punished. Therefore the images of the dragon and phoenix became associated with the court, representing imperial nobility and authority.
Cultures in the Far East believe that the earth is flat and the sky is domed, much like a turtle’s shell. It is regarded as an animal with magic that united heaven and earth. Sideways, it resembles a mountain and the turning motion of its toes is said to be a depiction of heaven and earth changing constantly through the seasons. As a symbol of the link between heaven and earth, it made them a natural tool for divination; usually by means of heating it over a fire and divining the cracks that form. The question and answer are usually carved onto the shell, as a means of checking back if the prediction came true. This form of divination was especially popular during the Shang dynasty in China.
The turtle’s ability to live a long life has made it a symbol of longevity and immortality. Some cultures consider the turtle as a symbol of sexual energies, by its ability to retract and extend its head which suggests the sexual act of procreation or its resemblance to the female genital when viewed from the top. For example, in Nigeria, it is a symbol of the female sex organ and sexuality.
The Native Americans used the turtle to keep track of time and is a model on how they should live their lives. It is associated with the lunar cycle hence subsequently menstruation and the power of female energies. The Native Americans believe that the thirteen large segments in the middle of the shell represent 13 full phases of the moon which make up a lunar year and the 28 smaller segments represent the days in a month. Nevertheless this is not applicable to all turtle species.
Its ability to live on both land and sea (people in the past usually do not differentiate between turtles and tortoises) makes people reflect upon themselves to adapt and flourish in any environment. The turtle is unable separate itself from its home which we should take it as a reminder that we cannot separate ourselves from what we do to the earth. Though the turtle is slow, it reminds us that we should take in wisdom one day at a time, stay relaxed, simply accepting and moving on as that is the natural way.
In ancient European culture, fishes represent adaptability, determination and the flow of life. In Christianity, fishes were mentioned in the bible quite a few times such as the miracle Jesus performed by feeding five thousand with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. With the success of such a miracle, it became a symbol of the abundance of faith Jesus’s followers have in Jesus himself. The Apostles are frequently referred to as “fishers of men” as well. The fish is frequently associated with fertility, eternity, creativity, femininity, good luck, happiness, knowledge and transformation.
In China, it is a symbol of unity and fidelity. As such they are often given as wedding gifts in the form of charms and figurines because it is an auspicious sign of fidelity and a perfect union. The Chinese character for fish, 魚/鱼 (pronounced ‘yú’) means abundance and wealth. When a fish is depicted with a lotus blossom, it means “Year after year, may you live in affluence”, which brings great fortune to the person in the place where its image is hung.
In Feng Shui, an image of a fish brings good fortune, abundant wealth, attracts success and prosperity as well as “capturing” any danger and bad luck. Buddhism regards the fish as one of the Eight Treasures of Buddha; as one of them is a pair of golden fish. It represents happiness and freedom and Buddhists release fish as part of showing piety towards all sentient beings.
Village people bring to mind the simple life without modern amenities, a time where people have closer ties with each other and each day was a day of hard work but the people are happy. This is the feeling artists desire to capture and show with each stroke on a painting.
These simple folk practice traditions handed down to them through generations and follow the tides of nature. It is a simple life where they toil while the sun is up and rest when the sun is down. Women typically exude very delicate and feminine values such as housekeeping and processing the harvest.
Normally the scene is a memory by the painter about his childhood. As more and more development occurs, rarely do people experience life in the country. Children nowadays do not leave the comfort of their own home to experience the outdoors. Hence, there is a need felt by the painter to let future generations as well as foreigners to know how the village people live. With time this lifestyle may as well vanish due to rapid modernization.