A Plate Full of Symbols

Lesson Plan

Lesson

After spending time exploring the historical context and meaning of the Buddhist symbols on the Dish, students will choose symbols they want to include on a plate as a gift for a powerful person today.

Intended Age Group

Early childhood (ages 3-5)

Length of Lesson

One 25 minute lesson

Standards Area

Social Studies

Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • explore the purpose and meaning of symbols;
  • develop ideas around what symbols mean today and how they can use them to communicate; and
  • listen and share about what they observe.

Lesson

  1. Begin by using a geographic tool to familiarize children with the location of China in relationship to where they live. Invite a few students to take turns pointing out these locations on the map.
  2. Provide some general information about Beijing during the Qing Dynasty and the Empress Dowager by telling a short narrative based on information provided in the About the Art section.
  3. Display or hand out the image of the Dish with the Eight Buddhist Emblems. Provide the historical context for the Dish, giving special emphasis to the Empress Dowager.
  4. Compare the Empress Dowager to powerful people the students will relate to from today, like a president.
  5. Talk about the emblems on the plate and the meaning behind them. Information can be found in the “Details” section of About the Art.
  6. Show students symbols they may recognize from their daily lives (e.g., heart, eye, ear, etc.). Ask them to share what they know about the meaning of these symbols.
  7. Ask the children to choose which of these symbols they would include on a plate for someone like the president, or another powerful person. Encourage them to think about which symbols they think would tell the powerful person what they want to say. You may want to provide examples, like “good luck” or “hope for a long life.”
  8. In summary, review what the students have chosen to say on their gift plate. Compare the symbols chosen by the children and their meanings to those on the Dish with the Eight Buddhist Emblems.

Materials

  • Set of simple symbols (show on cards or projection tool); e.g., heart, eye, ear, or crosswalk street sign
  • About the Art section on the Dish with the Eight Buddhist Emblems
  • Images of symbols from the Dish with the Eight Buddhist Emblems, found in the “Details” section of About the Art
  • Whiteboard or other projection tool on which to write words
  • A globe, world map, or access to a web-based geographic tool, like Google Earth
  • One color copy of the Dish with the Eight Buddhist Emblems for every 3 students or the ability to project image onto a wall or screen

Standards

CO Standards

  • Social Studies
    • History
      • Recognize change and sequence over time
  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy

About the Art

Dish with the Eight Buddhist Emblems

Dish with Eight Buddhist Emblems

late 19th century

China

Who Made It?

We do not know who made this porcelain dish, only that the artists at imperial porcelain workshops were very skilled. The fine details of the painted design would have required a very small brush and many hours of work. There were probably several craftsmen who worked on this dish—one may have specialized in outlining all of the decorations, while another filled in the colors. All of these craftsmen worked from a detailed design, made to please the Empress Dowager (mother of the emperor), for whom this dish was made.

This dish is made out of porcelain, a type of ceramic made from clay. The techniques used for making porcelain were invented by the Chinese during the T’ang Dynasty (618-906 CE) and were kept a closely guarded secret for many centuries. Porcelain is different from other types of pottery because of the addition of a special type of clay called kaolin. To make porcelain, an artist fires the clay in a kiln (a special type of oven used for hardening or drying materials) at a high temperature. Once fired, porcelain is delicately thin, translucent, and waterproof. Chinese potters were the first to produce porcelain because they had both large deposits of kaolin and the technical expertise to build high-temperature kilns.

What Inspired It?

A blue mark on the bottom of the dish tells us it was made for a powerful woman by the name of Cixi (TSUH-she) (1835-1908) for use in the Palace for Gathering Elegance, one of her palaces in the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is the name for the Imperial Palace complex located in the heart of Beijing. Cixi was the Empress Dowager and was known for her luxurious lifestyle and shrewdness in politics. Between 1861 and 1908, she could be considered the real ruler of the empire. Though she did not officially rule, she was the most powerful person in the country.

The imagery on Chinese decorative arts is often imbued with wishes of good fortune, long life, prosperity, and many children. The Eight Buddhist Emblems that are depicted on this dish were popular decorative elements during the Qing Dynasty, when this dish was made. The eight emblems are: the Wheel of Law, a conch shell, a victory banner, an umbrella, a lotus flower, a vase, a pair of fish, and an endless knot.

Details

Eight Buddhist Emblems
Eight Buddhist Emblems

In the inner circle, notice the vase, fish, endless knot, and lotus flower. The outer circle is filled with the victory banner, conch shell, wheel of law, and umbrella.

Vase
Vase

Holds the nectar of life, symbolizes long life and prosperity.

Pair of Fish
Pair of Fish

Symbolizes all living beings swimming freely, just as fish swim in water without fear of drowning.

Endless Knot
Endless Knot

Represents Buddha’s never-ending love, represents the union of wisdom and compassion.

Lotus
Lotus

Symbolizes purity of body, speech, and mind.

Umbrella
Umbrella

Gives protection from all evil and from the lure of evil desires.

Wheel of Law
Wheel of Law

Represents the teachings of Buddha that lead to perfection.

Victory Banner
Victory Banner

Stands for the complete victory of Buddhist doctrine over all harmful forces.

Conch Shell
Conch Shell

Used to frighten away demons, its sound is sacred and brings good luck.

Details
Details

There are many tiny details to be found throughout this dish, including a variety of flowers. For example, look at the flower near the lotus emblem. Each small blue circle has a slightly different shape and color. Inside the small blue circles are even smaller white circles with tiny black centers. Other details include the pomegranates and peaches. The pomegranate, with its many seeds, stands for a desire to have children. Peaches symbolize immortality.

Ribbons
Ribbons

Ribbons of a variety of colors swirl around each emblem. Notice each ribbon consists of two shades of the same color to help create the look of three-dimensional twists and turns.

Central Medallion
Central Medallion

The central circle consists of two different kinds of flowers (lotus and chrysanthemum) as well as some vines ending in leaf-like shapes. The vines create symmetrical shapes similar to the shapes on the border pattern. The green areas are finely outlined in black to highlight the forms. This medallion is the only part of the dish that is monochromatic (of one color).

Glazing
Glazing

Glaze is a glass-like coating that is applied to a ceramic vessel to make it waterproof and to allow for decoration. This dish has an overglaze, which means colored enamels were fired onto the surface of the glazed vessel.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.