Reading the Signs

Lesson Plan


Students will critically examine and discuss the image of the Dish with the Eight Buddhist Emblems. They will then fill out a Cornell note-taking template to record symbols and interpretations about time, place, and culture attained from reading signs found on the art object.

Intended Age Group

Secondary (grades 6-12)

Length of Lesson

One 50 minute lesson

Standards Area

Social Studies


Students will be able to:

  • describe and analyze what they see in the Dish with the Eight Buddhist Emblems;
  • interpret meaning from symbolic uses of design elements; and
  • read and organize information gathered from an art object and historical document.


  1. Explain to students that a work of art can be used as a primary source of historical inquiry. Ways to do this are by asking questions, evaluating, critically analyzing, and then interpreting information about time, place, and culture that can be found by reading signs on the object.
  2. Show students the image of the Dish with the Eight Buddhist Emblems. Ask them to identify what they see and what inferences they can make from that information, paying special attention to the symbols found in the decoration of the dish. Ask students to think of other times and places where they have seen symbols used. Have they seen symbols like these before, if so where and when?
  3. Share the information from the About the Art section with students. Go over the “Details” information. Ask students to link this new information with what thy might already know about the Forbidden City in Beijing, or to the creation of a ceramic pot in art class, or any other connections that they might be able to make. Locate Beijing on a map and if possible the location of the Forbidden City. Does its location give clues about what the symbols on the dish might mean?
  4. In groups, individually, or as a class, have students make a Cornell note-taking template, much like a T-list but with room for interpretations at the bottom. An example might look like this.
  • If time allows, students could research further about the Forbidden City and the original owner of this dish, Cixi.


  • Note taking paper for each student
  • Paper, chart, or white board for note taking template
  • Variety of pencils, markers, or other writing implements
  • Computer and Internet access for further research
  • A Template for the Cornell System of Note Taking
  • About the Art section on the Dish with the Eight Buddhist Emblems
  • Color copies of the dish for students to share, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Social Studies
    • History
      • Evaluate and analyze sources using historical method of inquiry and defend their conclusions
      • Understand the concept that the power of ideas is significant throughout history
      • Become familiar with Eastern Hemisphere historical eras, groups, individuals, and themes
      • Analyze the concepts of continuity and change and effect
      • Analyze the concept of complexity, unity and diversity
    • Geography
      • Become familiar with World geography
  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Dish with the Eight Buddhist Emblems

Dish with Eight Buddhist Emblems

late 19th century


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.


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.


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.


Symbolizes purity of body, speech, and mind.


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.


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 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).


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.