Aside from dragons and pandas, lotuses are probably one of the most well-known symbols of Chinese culture. You see them everywhere, dotted on landscape paintings, carved into candleholders, and etched on the surface of mooncakes. Indeed, lotuses have a unique beauty that sets them apart from other flowers, but they are valued for more than just their aesthetic. They are significant to Chinese culture, mostly because of what they symbolize and their ties to Buddhism and Taosim.
Most of you probably already know what lotuses are, but for those who have only observed them from afar, you might not know that lotuses actually grow in mud. They are also day-blooming flowers, meaning the petals only stay open in the morning and curl back into the muddy water at night. It is for this reason that lotuses have become a symbol for resilience, as their ability to thrive in undesirable conditions parallels how a person may find happiness even amidst darkness. They also symbolize rebirth and unwavering faith, as well as purity of body, mind and spirit.
Like many other flowers, the color of the lotuses also have different meanings. Blue lotuses mean knowledge and wisdom, white ones symbolize peace and purity, red ones symbolize love and compassion, and purple ones symbolize the Buddha’s teachings called the Noble Eightfold Path. Lastly, pink lotuses, the most common color, are regarded as true lotuses and have become a symbol of Buddhism in general.
Speaking of Buddhism, it is believed that the Buddha himself descended down to Earth on a floating lotus, and as he walked, his footprints became lotus flowers. This is how lotuses became one of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism. Taoism, on the other hand, believes that there are eight immortals who rule the Earth, one of them being Ho Hsien Ku, whose wisdom is represented by a lotus. Since Buddhism and Taoism are two of the most practiced religions in China, it’s no wonder that lotuses have made their way to many paintings, proverbs, and cultural elements.
The most obvious one is the Lotus Feet, which is a Chinese foot binding practice that began during the Five Dynasties and Ten States Period (五代十國). It started because the Emperor’s favorite concubine had tiny and delicate feet, and since she was the favorite, many other concubines bound their own feet to emulate her, until the practice became a fashion trend across China. The concubine also liked to dance on a stage that was shaped like a lotus, which is why foot binding eventually became known as Lotus Feet.
Lotus is also a key ingredient in many well-known Chinese foods. One of the primary examples are mooncakes, which are usually filled with red or white lotus seed paste. There’s also the lotus root and pork rib soup, which you may have seen from C-Dramas like The Untamed. In addition, lotuses also have medicinal properties, and are often used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Since Lotuses are so popular in China, you would think it’s also where they originated from as well, but unlike pandas, which can only be found in China, lotuses are actually native to Egypt and India. The lotuses found in China were imported from India about 1300 years ago, but now China currently produces 70% of lotuses for consumption.
It might come as a surprise to some that lotuses aren’t exactly tied to Chinese culture, but they are significant to Buddhism and Taoism. And since they are two of the most practiced religions in China, it’s only natural for lotuses to become an important symbol in Chinese culture as well.