Tag Archives: crab symbolism in Chinese art


Qi Baishi, the Chinese artist who lived from 1867-1957, did this lovely scroll in 1950. It shows us five crabs (that number does keep reappearing, doesn't it?). This work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

Here's what the catalog has to say about his work featuring crabs:

"Crabs became an important subject in Qi Baishi's painting after he moved into a new studio in 1913 and crabs frequented his backyard. He once observed, "When a crab moves, its legs rise and fall in strict order despite their great number. This is something crab painters in the world do not know." This work represents his mature style, when naturalism and abstraction found a new balance. The subtle gradation of the ink suggests the undulation of the shell's surface. The eyes have become two short slanting lines. The claws, as circular splotches of ink with two simple converging lines, are reduced to geometric abstraction. During the last forty years of his life Qi lived in Beijing and befriended people of radically different persuasions. His passive tolerance of things of which he might not approve shows in his sarcastic inscription to this painting, which reads: "I just fold my arms and watch you gentlemen go." The Chinese term for the sideways movement of crabs, hengxing, is also a metaphor for impudent behavior. Qi often humorously compared crabs to presumptuous people. Here, he states that he will simply stand aside and let these creatures have their way."

Of course the crab is symbolic in Chinese art. And once again it has to do with the way the Chinese word is pronounced.

From Primaltrek:

The Chinese word for crab (蟹) and the Chinese word for harmony (协) are both pronounced xie.  The crab symbol is sometimes used on charms which express a desire for peace such as the large tian xia tai ping (天 下太平) charm shown at Peace Coins and Charms.

The crab is also used to symbolize success in the imperial examination system.  This is because the Chinese word for the crab's shell (jia 甲) has the additional meaning of "first" as in achieving the highest score in the examination to become a government official.

Certainly we have seen many symbols wishing for success on exams, as these crabs might be doing. Doing well on Scholar's exams opened up the door for success to people outside the noble classes. Great grades could allow the student an important job in government, whereas failure would prevent any kind of government job.

Wonderful crabs appear on Mahjong tiles too.


These crabs are  Dots in a Shanghai Luck Mahjong set
These crabs are Dots in a Shanghai Luck Mahjong set

These three tiles are the One, Two and Three Dot tiles from a Shanghai Luck Set, called that because of the presence of sea creatures. I love the way the crabs are shown, legs going in a few different directions, the eyes popping out, and the great attention paid to the claws on the One Dot. Can't you just see them skittering across the mahjong table?  Maybe when one plays with one of these sets is can be the Game of Skittering Crabs in stead of The Game of Sparrows!!


DSC_0116 crab

Here is another crab from a different set of Flower tiles. You'll notice he too has the mark on the top of his shell, just like the ones on the One and Two Dot tiles above.


Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 8.50.23 AM

Reader Bill provided us with these wonderful Flower tiles some of you remember from before. The crab certainly is quite recognizable, on the right tile, but what is the left creature?

Perhaps it is some kind of jelly fish?

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 10.53.23 AM

There is a Asian fascination with jelly fish, and they frequently  appear in aquarium tanks, and anyone who has had the delightful experience of seeing these creatures from afar can certainly enjoy their great beauty.

To learn more about Mah Jongg, you might want to take a look at this book that I wrote with Ann Israel, published by Tuttle. To see more about it:

www.mahjonggtheartof thegame.com

To order it click here:


or here from Amazon