Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bats: Terror of the Night, or Omen of Good Luck?

With its gauzy blue wings and glittery details, the above Chinese bat is perhaps the most delicate and pretty one that I have seen. Since Halloween is coming up, with its frightening images of attacking vampire bats, I thought this would be a good time to compare Eastern and Western bats.

"I want to suck your blood...."

This bat, with its matted fur, sharp fangs, and glowing red eyes, shows the Halloween bat at its fearsome worst. However, even Western scientific treatises manage to capture the most menacing and unfriendly aspect of bats, as in this hand-colored engraving from a natural history text of 1840:

In Chinese culture, bats have a positive symbolism, and are considered to bring good luck, because the Chinese word for bat (fu,蝠) resembles the one for luck (fu,福) and is also written similarly. Here are a couple of  good-luck bats that are meant to be hung in the home, one in wood, and the other in gilt bronze. (Neither of these is very old; in future posts, I plan to examine how bats were incorporated into antique and vintage items.)

Bats are very auspicious commercially, as in this sign for “One Luck” take-out food.

If these outlines of Chinese bats are starting to look familiar, that is because bat-shaped hardware was borrowed by the heavily Chinese-influenced furniture designer Thomas Chippendale. Once you see this connection, a lot of Chinese-inspired scroll-work will resolve itself into bat-forms. Here are a couple of bonnet-top high chests from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts which incorporate Chinese Chippendale drawer-pulls and other brasses.

An Eighteenth-century Massachusetts high chest.

Detail of Massachusetts chest.

Another high chest, this one by famed Newport cabinetmaker John Townsend, c.1750’s.

Detail of Townsend chest.

Bats are truly ubiquitous here in Taiwan. They are found in good-luck charms, jewelry, home furnishings, stationery—just about anywhere. Taking a look around my apartment, I noticed a bat motif in the tile floor of the balcony, which has a repeating design of four bats facing inward in a circle:

The corners of my coffee table are enhanced with carved bats.

Here is an especially festive and friendly bat that adds an additional good-luck element to a New Year’s decorative firecracker.

So now that you have compared both types, which bats do you prefer:  auspicious, friendly, attractive Chinese ones, or dreadful, unlucky, ominous Western ones?

One more look at a scary Western bat.

Photo credits: The two high chests are courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, All other images belong to the author.


  1. Hello:
    What a fascinating and informative post. Chinese bats every time for us!!

    But, really, anything other than the real thing which we had to deal with on more than one occasion when we lived in England and bats lived in our roof!!

    The bat details on items around your home look exceedingly attractive. So cleverly done and so stylised that one can easily mistake them for simply pattern rather than a bat motif. The high chests are magnificent, we should certainly allow those bats to come indoors!!

  2. Hello Jane and Lance, There are many real bats in Taipei, too. Their movements are elegant, and since the membrane of the wings is translucent, they can be surprisingly beautiful when the streetlights shine through their wings. No wonder the alternate attitude toward them developed.

    I also would welcome a call from the Boston Museum to come and take those chests away--especially the Townsend one!

  3. Hello, Parnassus - What an epiphany to realize that the hardware on early American furniture is stylized bats! And of course when you know Chippendale's influences, it all makes sense.

    The Townsend and Goddard names are familiar to me because I just finished reading "Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture," by the Keno twins of Antique Roadshow fame. It's a doubly interesting read as the story of the twins' education as collectors and the stories behind individual masterpieces of New England furniture. I recommend it.

    And of course the Chinese bats have won me over.

  4. Hello Mark, I am glad you liked the bats. It is interesting how often stylized designs turn out to have an ancient and exotic lineage.

    Thanks for the tip about Hidden Treasures, which I just added to my list. I love books that combine information about objects with the excitement of collecting them.

  5. I have a pair of C19th Peking red lacquer wedding chests with bat motif drawer handles, but as noted above, I had not noticed the influence on English/American furniture of the C18th. It does indeed make sense.

  6. Hello Columnist, I guess the idea of multiculturalism is not new. The irony is that Chippendale is uber-respectable, but bats recognizable by Westerners would be most unwelcome.

    Your red lacquer chests sound wonderful. Maybe you could show us a picture of them.

  7. What a clever post this is, Parnassas! We have a large colony of bats that live on our property (most of them, apparently, in our barn), for which I am grateful, and somewhat fearful given the blight here in America that is decimating their population. One of my treasured memories is sitting on our screen porch in the summer at twilight, when the bats begin their nocturnal flights, and the night sky becomes filled with them flitting about, feasting on the insects that haven't retired for the day. Reggie

  8. Hello Reggie, First honeybees, now bats--I worry about all these pressures on the environment. I hope that your colony survives. You paint a relaxed, elegant picture of watching their graceful flights.

  9. I like the Chinese bats:). The Western ones still scare me, at least the STORIES of the, scare me:).

  10. Hello Lisa (LPC), You just cut through miles of multi-cultural red tape. The Chinese ones are supposed to be likable, as the Western ones scary, so you get to experience the mind-sets of both worlds.

  11. I never knew that those pulls were stylized bats! If my grandmother knew, she surely wouldn't allow that Colonial Revival furniture in her home!

  12. Hello Christopher, It seems bizarre until we can see the bat as also a symbol of luck and elegance. A similar humorous contrast is that many people who wear Egyptian-style jewelry wouldn't be too thrilled seeing real dung beetles.

    By the way, I am also from Cleveland, and your blog on Cleveland history is one of my favorites.

  13. Fascinating post! I never thought about the Chippendale pulls being bat-shaped. But of course!

    1. Hi Jen, One of the fun parts about seeing different kinds of art is that shock of recognition when we suddenly see a parallel to or influence on other kinds.

  14. Not terror of the night for everyone.

    Cuba's Bacardi building’s central tower is crowned by a bat, a figure that appears throughout the building. I presume Bacardi rum featured the Mexican free-tailed bat as its icon because the bats were great pollinators of the sugar cane and because they devoured the insects that damaged sugar cane.

    The Bacardi Company must have felt the bat represented profit and success :)

  15. Hello Hels, You are right--I had forgotten about the Bacardi symbol. I even toured the factory once when I was on a trip to Puerto Rico.

    As farm as I am concerned, anything that eats mosquitoes deserved to be an omen only of good things.

  16. Dearest Jim,
    Love your post about the Chinese bats being so omnipresent in many objects.
    To me they are not scary at all, we had lots of Kalongs, fruit bats in Indonesia and at night they all gathered to hang down from a huge tree.
    Interesting as usual.
    Hugs to you,

    1. Hello Mariette, You bring up an interesting point. I used to see lots of bats ar dusk in Taiwan, but recently not so many. I wonder whether they are experiencing some problem now--I'll have to keep a sharper eye out, and investigate. --Jim

  17. Hello Jim, Absolutely fascinating especially the Chippendale bit. I had no idea. Here in the Central Virginia countryside, bats are still abundant. In the warm weather at dusk, we sit on our porch and watch the bats start to dart about. Who needs one of those horrible blue bug lights when nature's "zapper" is around? We are rarely bothered by mosquitoes and feel quite comfortable with our flying friends. Thank you, Barbara

    1. Hello Barbara, It seems that so many old Chinese designs turn up when we're not expecting them.

      I envy you your country home in Virginia. The way you describe it, I can just imagine relaxing on the porch with a cool drink. There is certainly no shortage of mosquitoes in Taiwan, and I would welcome seeing more bats flying around. --Jim

  18. Thank you for your very informative post. I love bats and it is nice to see them in a positive light rather than as evil or gross as they can be portrayed in the US.

    1. Hello, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. You'll be glad to know that lately I have seen more bats flying around the city, although for the past few years I have seldom seen any. --Jim


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