Ophthalmic Heritage & Museum of Vision

Animal Symbolism

 Myopic spectacles with blue lenses. Tortoise shell, glass. China. c. 1800. The Harriet and J. William Rosenthal, MD Collection Symbol on the bridge represents the bull or niu representing springtime, water, strength and fertility. Animals held a special place in Chinese mythology. In traditional Chinese thought, both mythical and real creatures were used to describe the animal kingdom, thus the phoenix represented birds, unicorns stood for animals with fur, scaly creatures were symbolized by the dragon, and the tortoise represented animals with shells. All were also used to symbolize the four cardinal directions. For this reason tortoiseshell was considered a particularly fine choice for spectacle frames and cases. In addition, the tortoise was thought to endow the wearer with good luck, strength, endurance and long life.
Engraved monocle case with monkey tassel and glass pendant Ivory, ruby glass, stone. China. c. 1700. The Harriet and J. William Rosenthal, MD Collection Monkeys, one of the twelve signs of the Chinese Zodiac, were often depicted to drive away evil spirits. The Chinese Zodiac uses twelve animals to depict the yearly cycle. Signs of the Zodiac include the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. There are many legends associated with the Zodiac and how each animal came to be associated with their place within it. One Zodiac sign depicted on spectacles was the niu, a generic term for oxen or cattle. The niu symbolized springtime, as work on the land began with ceremonial plowing. It also represented water, strength and fertility.
 Spectacles with dark lenses. Quartz, silver. China. c. 1830. The Harriet and J. William Rosenthal, MD Collection Symbol on the bridge represents a bat or fu meaning good fortune. The names of individual animals in Chinese are often phonetically close to the concepts they symbolize, such as the word fu meaning both bat and good fortune. Five bats (pian-fu) were often shown together to represent the Five Blessings – a long life, riches, health, love of virtue and a natural death. Similarly, the butterfly (hu-die), represented long life because the word die refers to an elderly man. However, in the case of the butterfly, its symbolism was also closely related to a legend in which it is said that the soul of a dead wife appeared to her husband as a butterfly. From this reference, butterflies also represented joy and fidelity.
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