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Good luck or nuisance?

Posted on 10/31/2020 at 11:00 AM by Allison Sheridan

During Halloween season, the question inevitably arises, “Do you have anything creepy, scary or spooky in the collection to talk about?” This year, I will forgo my gut reaction of posting the Wedgewood black cat figure or the doll in the midst of a blood curdling scream (the scariest inhabitant of our doll collection!) and focus on the more “mysterious” bats in the collection. October, bat appreciation month, is a time of year where bats seek the warmth of interior spaces, and also a month synonymous with the creepy and misunderstood – spiders, ghosts, black cats, and wicked witches. Bats, it seems, induce much less fear in some cultures and are even revered! 

IMAGE LEFT: Plate, 20th century - Qing Dynasty, Chinese. Porcelain. Marks: Made in year of Yung Cheng of great Ch'ing dynasty. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the Ann and Henry Brunnier Collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 2.2.65

IMAGE RIGHT: Saucer, 1796-1820, Qing Dynasty, Chinese.Porcelain. Marks: Made in the year of Chia Ch'ing, Emperor of great Ch'ing dynasty. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the Ann and Henry Brunnier Collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 2.2.40

Examples of bats depicted in the collection can be found on Chinese art as decorative motifs on porcelain and carved furniture. Two shallow bowls in the collection are decorated with numerous bat representations. In the smaller bowl’s interior, five bats, a number closely associated with the elements, surround the symbol shou as a representation of good fortuneand prosperity. The five bats, in a red/orange color, are not sinister decoration -- in Chinese culture they represent the Five Blessings of health, long life, prosperity, virtue, and a peaceful death. These lucky bats also appear on the second larger bowl flying in pairs among the cranes over waves and in clouds. The Chinese word for bat (fu 蝠) sounds identical to the word for good fortune (fu ) making bats a popular Chinese motif. Five bats together are called wufu.

One last example of a bat in the collection is the carved representations on the Chinese export furniture purchased by Iowa State’s own suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt. The carvings clearly have bat wings but an amalgamation of other animals make up the fantastical looking body and face. These bat-like representations are on two chairs and a cabinet in the permanent collection. 

IMAGE: Chair, Chinese, n.d. Mahogany or rosewood. Gift of the Carrie Chapman Estate. In the permanent collection of the Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U83.208

Far from spooky, bats are viewed as good luck in Chinese culture, even when they get into your house. I must remind the Farm House Museum student interns of this fact – BATS = good luck, not bad fortune – for when the next bat shows up in the museum as fall arrives in full force! 

Learn more about why Chinese art is swarming with tiny bats

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