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Ancient Chinese Symbolism in Modern Chinatown Chicago

Chinatown is one of our favorite spots to spend a day around Chicago. But more than just a neighborhood with good food and intriguing markets, Chicago's Chinatown can connect visitors in-the-know with a small slice of history and Chinese symbolism. Watch for these fascinating elements on your next visit to better engage with Chinatown.

Chinatown is one of our favorite spots to spend a day around Chicago. But more than just a neighborhood with good food and intriguing markets, Chicago's Chinatown can connect visitors in-the-know with a small slice of history and Chinese symbolism. Watch for these fascinating elements on your next visit to better engage with Chinatown.

But first... about Chicago's original Chinatown

Between about 1870 through 1890, 600 Chinese immigrants arrived in Chicago and settled in an enclave located just a few blocks west of Grant Park (then called Lake Park), in today's "Loop" district.

That original location was the second oldest settlement of Chinese in the United States after the Chinese fled persecution in California. It continued to grow and thrive for its first 30 years.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Chinese Chicagoans found themselves being priced out of the downtown area, and began migrating toward the current Armour Square neighborhood on the city's near South Side.

By 1910, little evidence of Chicago's original Chinatown remained. Today, a lone vestige pays homage to the Chinese history of the Clark & Van Buren area: a pagoda-shaped sign repurposed for current tenant La Cocina, a Mexican restaurant at 406 Clark St.


Chicago's modern Chinatown

Today, Chicago's compact South Side Chinatown is home to roughly 50,000+ people (figures vary thanks to ill-defined boundaries), with as many as 50-80% being of Chinese descent.

Chicago's Chinatown is one of the nation's most vibrant Chinatowns, thriving even as others decline and disappear.


Ancient symbolism in a modern Chinatown

Visitors to Chinatown will find these symbolic elements sprinkled throughout the neighborhood:

DRAGONS

Dragons can be spotted on lampposts, pillars, rooftops, and general décor around Chicago's Chinatown. Several theories seek to explain how the dragon first entered into Chinese lore; our favorite theory -and a commonly accepted one- is this:

The dragon is thought to have made its way into Chinese tradition when the Yellow Emperor (third millennium BC) consecutively conquered nine nearby tribes, incorporating elements of each tribe's totem into his own snake totem.

This likely explains why Chinese depictions of a dragon typically feature a specific set of characteristics (i.e., from the conquered tribes' totems): body of a snake (from the Yellow Emperor's totem), scales of a carp, tail of a whale, antlers of a stag, head of a camel, talons of an eagle, ears of a bull, paws of a tiger, and the eyes of a demon.

When the Yellow Emperor died, he was believed to be reborn as a dragon. When his descendants succeeded him as emperors, they were considered descendants of that first dragon.

Symbolism of the Chinese dragon:

  • Chinese dragons symbolize power, strength and good fortune. They are divine and benevolent, unlike their evil European counterparts.
  • Chinese dragons are a sacred symbol of imperial power. All of an emperor's possessions were given the name of dragon: Dragon Throne, Dragon Robe, Dragon Boat, Dragon Bed, etc. Ordinary people were prohibited by law from possessing items depicting dragons.

GUARDIAN LIONS

Lions seemingly made their way to China during the Han dynasty (206BC - 220AD). Whether lions first appeared in stone representation with the arrival of Buddhism early in the dynasty, or as live animals as a later gift from Middle Eastern diplomats is still unclear. But whichever the case, lions gained status and popularity over their first 500-ish years in China, coming to represent power and protection for the rich and noble.

Statues of the lion are commonly found guarding gates, bridges, temples, tombs, government offices and homes. 

Guardian lions always appear in pairs; a male on the left and a female on the right. The male, with his right paw resting on a ball, protects the structure and its material aspects. The female, with her left paw on or around a cub, guards the lives of the people within the structure.

Symbolism of the Chinese guardian lion:

  • Guardian lions represent power, grandeur, nobleness, and dignity in China, similar to their status of king of the animal kingdom in many world cultures.
  • Guardian lions also represent protection from evil spirits.

THE SAGGING ROOF

Numerous buildings and structures around Chinatown feature the traditional “sagging roof,” sometimes called a pagoda roof. Several interesting theories exist to explain this traditional design:

  • It is a remnant of the very earliest shelters whose roofs were made of bamboo, a material which sagged under its own weight.
  • The curvilinear form protects the building from evil spirits, which the Chinese believe are incapable of traveling in anything but straight lines.
  • The upturned corners allow light and breezes in while keeping rain out, as well as making the earliest roofs less likely to become airborne in strong winds. 
  • There is even a theory that as crude calligraphy evolved into an art and began using more sweeping strokes, the art of architecture followed suit.

Have you learned anything fascinating on a visit to Chinatown?

How do you connect with a new destination?

Tell us about it in the comments!


Chinatown is one of our favorite spots to spend a day around Chicago. But more than just a neighborhood with good food and intriguing markets, Chicago's Chinatown can connect visitors in-the-know with a small slice of history and Chinese symbolism. Watch for these fascinating elements on your next visit to better engage with Chinatown.

Pin this post for your next visit to Chinatown!

 

 


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Sources

Information in this post comes from: The Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, The Chinese Cultural Institute's walking tour, and the following websites: http://arts.cultural-china.com/en/69Arts1413.html, https://www.britannica.com/art/Chinese-architecture, https://www.britannica.com/topic/long, http://arts.cultural-china.com/en/69Arts10814.html, http://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/article-chinese-dragons.htm, http://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/article-stone-lions.htm, http://resources.primarysource.org/content.php?pid=55421&sid=405880