The Owl in Early Chinese Art

By Wang Tao for

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Among the many animal motifs used in early Chinese art, the representation of the owl – commonly called a “screech owl” and “horned owl” in China – is one of the most prominent yet most mysterious images. There are nearly 30 different subspecies in the owl family, and among these the most familiar ones are the long-eared Eurasian eagle owl (diao xiao), the long-eared owl (chang’er xiao) and the short-eared tawny owl (duan’er xiao). In its natural habitat, the owl is an extraordinary nocturnal bird, with binocular vision and binaural hearing. It makes a harsh call and catches its prey in the dark. As it preys on rats and other small animals that damage crops, it is considered useful in agriculture.  As an important animal, we can trace its artistic development from the earliest times.
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Neolithic art in China focused primarily on clay.  The early potters of the Yangshao culture (c. 5500 – 3500 BCE) were clearly fascinated by the owl and created various representations of it.  Archaeologists have found a number of pottery animals from Yangshao culture burials at Huaxian Taipingzhuang in Shaanxi province, including an owl head and a pottery tripod made in the form of a standing owl-like bird (figs. 1 and 2); both are realistic and the latter successfully combines the function of a vessel with the artistic representation of the bird.

Fig. 3

There was also in the Neolithic a tradition of stone carving that was developed from very early times. Jade was used as early as the fifth millennium BC for making personal ornaments and small animal sculptures.  In recent years, the surprising discoveries of the early cultures have provided many significant examples of carved jades. The discovery of jade carvings of small owl-like birds (fig. 3), together with jades in the form of turtles and dragons, at sites of the Hongshan culture (c. 4000-3000BC) in northeast China has revealed new aspects of prehistoric art. Although we do not know the exact meaning of the animal motifs, the context of these finds – they were unearthed from the tombs of community chiefs or religious figures (shaman) – suggests that these creatures were part of the religious system.

Fig. 4

By the early second millennium BC, the Bronze Age had emerged in the central plains.  Copper and tin alloys were used to make ritual objects, in particular vessels for cooking and serving food and drink.  Anyone with an interest in ancient Chinese civilization cannot fail to recognize the significance of bronze artifacts found at Erlitou and Erligang. During the final phase of the Shang dynasty (c.1300-1046BC),  its capital was moved to Yinxu (present day Xiaotun in Anyang, Henan province), where bronze manufacturing reached its peak under royal patronage. With the new knowledge and skills of metal working came remarkable innovations in bronze production.  Many new types of vessels were introduced, and increasingly sophisticated schemes were applied to the surface decoration.  In general, the main characteristics of the Anyang bronzes are their rich forms and highly stylized decoration, which are termed by a number of art historians as the “metropolitan style”, in contrast to the more naturalistic “regional style” found in the south and southwest1.

Fig. 5

The main decorative motifs on Shang bronzes are, according to some scholars, concerned with metamorphosis.  As Wu Hung has pointed out, the taotie motif often combines features from different animals, “but these never become naturalistic representations or formulated icons.”  He continues: “These varying images seem to attest to a painstaking effort to create metaphors for an intermediate state between the supernatural and reality – something that one could depict but not portray.”2

There are however exceptions. A few real animals – notably, the elephant, the tiger, and the owl – are frequently represented in Shang art in a more realistic, more naturalistic way than other animals. Here I will focus only on the owl.

Fig. 6

In the 1930s, archaeologists from the Academia Sinica excavated the Shang royal cemetery at Xibeigang, on the northern bank of the Huan River. In tomb M1001, they found a marble owl (fig. 4), in standing pose, with round eyes, hooked beak, large raised horn-like tufts and split tail, its torso decorated with stylized patterns and two owl-like birds on the breast, two kui-dragons on its head and a cicada on its back. Also found in this tomb was another larger owl (fig. 5), also carved in marble, but with very different decoration: with pointed beak, two flat horns and human-like ears, its torso covered with feather-like patterns, the wings turned into the coiled serpent and kui-dragon patterns. The larger owl also had an open channel on its back, suggesting that it may originally have been attached to a wooden pole, perhaps as a guardian spirit placed at the entrance of the tomb.  A marble tiger in kneeling position was also found in this tomb, with a similar channel on its back, likely for the same usage and function. According to the archaeologists, tomb M1001 belonged to the most powerful king of the late Shang dynasty, Wu Ding.  In another tomb (M1885) at Xibeigang, they also found a bronze vessel in the shape of an owl – of which the cover was missing.

Fig. 7

In 1976, archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, discovered in Xiaotun village an intact royal tomb which belonged to Fu Hao, one of the consorts of King Wu Ding.  A number of small jade owls were found in her tomb, together with a pair of large bronze wine vessels (zun) made in the shape of standing owls (figs. 6 & 7). These two vessels are among the most impressive bronzes ever discovered at Yinxu. They bear a close resemblance to the Xibeigang marble owls: with similar long hooked beaks, short ears, and raised horns in dragon form, their necks and breasts decorated with kui-dragons and taotiemotifs, wings transformed into coiled serpents, the backs and tails fashioned into another owl image. On the covers of each vessel are two small knobs in the form of a dragon and an owl sculpted in the round. The owl motif also appears on several other large bronze vessels from the tomb of Fu Hao – for instance, the large animal-shaped gongfangyifangzun and fanghu, as three-dimensional sculpted small owls placed on the shoulders of the vessels, as well as being a register of their surface decoration; in some cases, we can tell it is the owl, but some have a long tail that is not characteristic of an owl, and for this reason scholars call them “fantastical-bird” (guainiao)3.  We have little knowledge of the early history of ornithology in China, but the Shang people seemed to have distinguished the subtle physical variations between different species.

Many Shang bronzes were clearly inspired by the owl motif, either in the form of the vessel or as surface decoration.  Representative examples include:

Fig. 8

A: The late Shang dynasty fangjia (fig. 8), in the collection at Compton Verney, formerly in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 2007. This is a large square wine vessel decorated with the owl motif in two different ways: as low relief on three sides of the body of the vessel, and as two small round sculptures on the lid. The owl has a feathered-body, pointed beak and round staring eyes. The owl motif on the side register of the vessel is particularly striking: its torso is spread over the slightly curved surface, like a relief décor, against the intricate background.  This is one of the most impressive, exquisite bronzes of the late Shang dynasty, comparable in terms of style of décor to a group of bronze vessels of the late Shang period.

Fig. 9

B: The double-owl you, in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (fig. 9), of the late Shang period. This is one of many similar examples, where the form of the vessel is contrived from two owls joined together back to back. The owl retains its natural form, and has a hooked beak, flat ears, plump body and squat legs, its breast and wings covered with feather-like patterns. The double-owl you combines the function of the vessel with the animal representation, enhancing the three-dimensionality of the object.

Fig. 10

C: The owl-shaped zun, in the Yale University Art Gallery collection (fig. 10), of the late Shang dynasty, allegedly from Yinxu. This is a very rare vessel made in the shape of a standing owl. It is close in form to the marble owl from the Shang cemetery at Xibeigang, with its round saucer-like beady eyes, pointed beak, short ears and raised tufts, its wings turned into the coiled snake, and the taotie and dragon motifs on its sides and breast, looking more like a small sculpture than a vessel. There are a few comparable examples, including the pieces in the Sumitomo collection and one in the Sakamoto collection.

As Robert Bagley has observed, for a period, the owl was probably the only real animal that rivaled the taotie as the principle motif on Shang ritual bronzes. However he rejects any symbolic interpretations of the motif, and insists that the explanation of the motifs, being design features, must lie in the evolution of the decorative system4.  It is true that a design or motif has its own invention and development, nonetheless, when employed in the form of a ritual vessel or in its surface decoration, the presence of the animal-motif lends certain significance to that vessel, creating an impression that the vessel is turning into a living object. The animal motif may refer to a particular category of imagined fantastic creatures, or to animals in the real world, but either way, it can be regarded as a completely new configuration in Shang ritual art.  When a ritual bronze was specially designed and created, the intention was to provide a particular visual experience, and its significance would have been understood by the viewer. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Shang artisans had the knowledge and skill to make bronzes in any form they wanted. When they chose to present the animals in a specific way, it is likely that the reasons lay with not only the program of design, but were also conditioned by the social and religious system of the Shang people.

When certain real animals are presented in a naturalistic manner, the realistic features of the animals are explicitly played out, suggesting that the objects are infused with an animated power, or they affirm what the viewer already knows about his relationship with those animals. In Shang ancestral worship, domesticated animals such as ox, sheep, dogs and pigs were regularly sacrificed. Sometimes, wild animals captured in hunting were also sacrificed. While the Shang craftsmen produced thousands of bronze vessels, following the prescribed decorative system, they were sometimes mesmerized by the charm of certain real animals to make exceptional objects. In this way the animal-shaped vessels were perceived and treated more like ‘sculptures’ than as utilitarian vessels.

Fig. 11

Why the owl?  The terrifying screech and nocturnal behavior of the owl would have fit perfectly the perception of abnormality in ritual and magic; its physical appearance also reminds people of a warrior. In ancient Greece, the owl was a sacred bird associated with Athena, the goddess of war, wisdom and the crafts; and for the Etruscans, the owl was regarded as a deity who received human sacrifices5.  It is not difficult to imagine that the owl might have played a significant role in Shang beliefs, and this suggestion was first voiced in the 1960s and 1970s, when Hu Houxuan argued that the Shang people had the bird as their totem6.  Even more relevant for our discussion is the theory proposed by several scholars, that the mythical black-bird (xuanniao) from which the Shang people were believed to have originated was an owl. According to Sun Xinzhou,  strigidae (owl) worship existed in the Shang dynasty, and the mythical ancestor Di Jun (also known as Di Ku, Shun) can be identified with the bird deity who was also the productive god, agriculture protector and solar god for the Shang people7. Although his argument is grounded in the old totemic framework, the suggestion of the owl being the xuanniao or black bird is certainly worthy of investigation.

Fig. 12

The myth of the origin of the Shang people is found in The Book of Songs (“Heaven bade the dark bird”) . Of course, this song cannot be regarded as an original record of the Shang dynasty.  It is more likely that it was transmitted orally through the Shang into the Zhou period, with slight variations over time. In Shang and Zhou lexicography, the word xuan (black) can also be understood as “mysterious” or “divine”8,  and in Shang oracle bone inscriptions, we find a pictograph depicting a beaked owl with round eyes and plump torso, which is the name of a star, or it can be rendered as the character standing for the owl itself (Heji: 522, 11497, 11498, 11499, 11500).  In other cases, it is used together with the ancestral names Fu Gui and Fu, and  can be interpreted as “Father Gui of the Owl clan” (fig. 11) and “Lady of the Black Owl clan” (fig. 12). Thus, the evidence from Shang archaeology and historical literature render it quite possible that the Shang people believed in some mythical relationship with the owl. Liu Dunyuan has argued that the Shang people perceived the owl as the god of night and dreams, as well as the messenger between the human and the spirit world – on account of its silent flight and hunting in darkness9.  If so, this would explain why the owl is employed repeatedly in Shang ritual art and is found in a burial context, as we have seen in the examples previously discussed.

The conventional explanation is that the black bird is a swallow (yanzi). This was the view of scholars of the Han dynasty, and Han paintings and murals did indeed present the swallow as the black bird (or sun-bird, taiyangniao) and the owl as the bird of the underworld. For example, the silk funerary banner from the Mawangdui Han tomb (no. 1) depicts a black bird (swallow-like) in the sun, and an owl-like bird near the entrance of the heaven, and moreover, on left and right sides of the earth platform are two owl-on-turtle images.  Their meaning, according to Eugene Wang, is to signify “the sun setting at dusk in the west and re-emerging from the east at dawn.”10  Han ideology favored the association of the swallow with filial piety (xiao) – after all, the swallow faithfully returns every year – and the owl was conversely portrayed as an evil bird that ate its mother11.  We however do not find such opposition in the earlier period, and in Shang archaeology, while there are a few references to the swallow, the owl is clearly more prominent.

Fig. 13

It is unlikely that the Shang belief associated with the owl worship disappeared immediately after the conquest of the Zhou. It is probably more reasonable to think of the craftsman of the early western Zhou dynasty borrowing the Shang designs and technology when making their new ritual vessels. One of the noticeable changes in the early western Zhou is the greater prominence of the bird motifs on ritual bronzes as they took over the central position previously occupied by the taotie motif. Although most scholars have opted not to identify the species of the bird in the decoration, close examination suggests it could be a stylized owl motif. With the hooked beak and round eyes, it closely resembles the owl on the Shang bronzes. The main difference between the Zhou bird-motif and the Shang dynasty prototype is the elongated plumage and long tail of the Zhou bird, which are precisely the attributes of the mythical phoenix (fenghuang). The phoenix, the counterpart of the dragon, is probably the divine bird, representing the source of life and Empresses of later periods. In terms of stylistic development, it appears that the phoenix motif is a conflation of owl and pheasant, and its artistic representation is probably associated with the mystification of the bird. The Da Bao You (fig. 13), now in the collection of the Hakatsuru Art Museum, is a rare example made in the shape of a standing bird that bears a close resemblance to the owl zun from Fu Hao’s tomb, but has a strong beak and long plumage on its head. Though impressive in size, its bold shape and simplified decoration indicate a clear departure from the Shang tradition.

In Zhou literature, the owl continues to hold a mythic power.  There is one poem devoted to the subject to the owl, in The Book of Songs, the collection of ancient poems and folksongs (translation by Arthur Waley):

Oh, kite-owl, kite-owl,

You have taken my young

Do not destroy my house.

With such love, such toil

To rear those young ones I strove!

Before the weather grew damp with rain

I scratched away the bark of that mulberry tree

And twined it into window and door.

‘Now, you people down below,

If any of you dare affront me….’

My hands are all chafed

With plucking so much rush flower;

With gathering so much bast

My mouth is all sore.

And still I have not house or home!

My wings have lost their gloss,

My tail is all bedraggled.

My house is all to pieces,

Tossed and battered by wind and rain.

My only song, a cry of woe!

The poem was traditionally interpreted as a heated exchange between King Cheng and the Duke of Zhou, or as a social message expressing the unhappiness of the disadvantaged towards the privileged class.  However, as Arthur Waley points out, the allegory does not make sense, and the song must have derived from early legend12.  In a new study, Ye Shuxian has re-interpreted this poem, treating it as a prayer uttered by worshipers to the personified owl deity, in which the dignified owl responds with resentment to the self-pity of the prayer13.  In some way, this thousand year-old Chinese song reminds us of The Owl and the Nightingale, a twelfth or thirteenth century English poem , but the personality of the owl is very different.

Over time, the particular mythical association of ancient times between the owl and the people was lost. There are a few eighth-seventh century BC examples in which the owl was used decoratively on ritual vessels.  However, from the sixth century BC onwards, the owl motif gradually disappeared from the mainstream of visual art.  The radical intellectual movement of the Eastern Zhou period led to the reorganization and schematization of early beliefs and myths14.  The owl was still associated with special powers, but there was a shift in attitude. No longer thought of as benign, the owl was portrayed as a threat, an ill omen and the harbinger of unwelcome death15.

Nonetheless, the owl continued to feature in literature and art, usually with mysterious powers. A well-known example is the rhyme-prose (fu) ‘Rhapsody on the Owl’ written by the Han dynasty young statesman and poet Jia Yi (220-168BC) after he was banished to Changsha, a remote region in the south, and formerly the territory of the Chu state. One day he was visited by an owl, and Jia Yi used the owl to express his Daoist belief of life and death.

Here, the owl is of some kind of spirit or prophet who tells the philosophy of life and death, as well as the Mandate of Heaven. Clearly, by the time of Jia Yi, the owl was perceived very differently from the time of the Shang dynasty. Later, it was generally regarded as an inauspicious creature, a strange and menacing being. But, in Jia Yi’s writing, we see more of the idea and imagery of the owl as derived from the deep rooted earlier tradition of the Shang religion.

1  See Bagley, “The Appearance and Growth of Regional Bronze Cultures” in Wen Fong, ed. The Great Bronze Age of China, New York, 1980, pp. 111-9.

2  Wu Hung, Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture, Stanford, 1995 pp.48, 53.

3 Institute of Archaeology, CASS, Yinxu Fu Hao mu (Tomb of Lady Hao at Yinxu in Anyang ), Beijing, 1980,  animal shapedgong(802),   pp. 59-63, pl.26-1;  fangyi(791), p. 50, pl.18-1; fangzun(792),  pp. 53-4, pl.8-1;  fanghu(794),  p. 64, pl.43-1&2.

4 Bagley, Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, New York, 1987, pp. 360-7.

5 Hall, Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art, Colorado, 1996, p. 37.

6 Hu Houxuan, “Jiaguwen Shangzu niaotuteng de yiji”, (The surviving evidence of the Shang bird totemic worship in oracle bone inscriptions),  Lishi luncun, no. 1, 1964, pp. 131-59; “.Jiaguwen suojian Shangzu niaotuteng de xin yiji” (New evidence of the Shang bird totemic worship in oracle bone inscriptions), Wenwu, 1977/2,  pp.84-7.

7 Sun Xinzhou, “Chixiao Chongbai yu Huaxia Lishi Wenming,” (On the strigidae worship and historical civilization in China)Journal of Tianjin Normal University (Social Sciences), no. 5, 2004, pp. 31-7.

8 See Wang Tao, “Colour terms in Shang oracle bone inscriptions”, BSOAS, vol.59, no.1 (1996), pp. 63-101;  “Qingyou gaozu xinjie” (Dark-blue ancestors: The relationship between space and colour in ancestral worship), in Chrystelle Maréchal & Yau Shun-chiu, eds., Actes des symposiums internationaux Le Monde visuel chinois,  Paris, 2005, pp. 269-80. 

9 Liu Dunyuan, “Ye Yu Meng Zhishen de Chixiao” (The owl: deity of night and dreams), in Collected Papers of Liu Dunyuan, Beijing, 2012, pp. 159-71.

10 Eugene Y. Wang,“Why pictures in Tombs? Mawangdui Once More” Orientations, March 2009, pp. 27-34.

11 Shuowen jiezi (Xu Shen, 1st Century): “The owl is an unfillial bird; so, on the rizhi day people catch owls and slaughter them.”

12 Waley, The Book of Songs,  New York, Grove Press reprint, 1988,  pp. 275-6. Romanization of Chinese names has been changed to pinyin system

13 Ye Shuxian, “Jingdian de wudu yu zhishi kaogu—yi ‘Shijing Chixiao’ weili” (Misunderstanding of Classics and archaeology of knowledge—taking ‘the owl’ poem in the Book of Songs as an example),  Journal of the Shaanxi Normal University (Social Science), Vol. 35 no. 4, July 2006, pp. 56-64.

14 See Sarah Allan, The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art and Cosmos in Early China, Albany, 1997, esp. Chapter 2.

15 Translation by James Robert Hightower,  in The Shorter Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature,  ed. by Victoria H. Mair, New York, CUP, 2000, pp. 209-11.

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