The Role of Cicadas in Chinese Culture

A cicada fan.

The symbolism associated with cicadas in Chinese culture and mythology is extensive. (Image: via Smithsonian Institution)

Cicadas in Chinese culture play a big role. Cicadas are insects that are best known for the songs sung by most, but not all, male cicadas. Males sing by flexing their tymbals, which are drum-like organs found in their abdomens. Small muscles rapidly pull the tymbals in and out of shape. The sound is intensified by the cicada’s mostly hollow abdomen.

Female and some male cicadas will also make a sound by flicking their wings, but it isn’t the same as the sound for which cicadas are known.

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Cicadas in Chinese culture

Chinese people are inspired by nature for their symbolism. And in this regard, the range of insects needs special mention. One insect which has been an integral part of Chinese culture and tradition is the cicada. Cicadas have been found extensively in Chinese folklore and myths, in literature, and in various other art forms.

The symbolism associated with cicadas in Chinese culture and mythology is extensive. It indicates the commencement of summer and refers to complex themes like immortality and rebirth. Nature’s pathos is also reflected through cicadas in Chinese culture.

Cicadas in Chinese culture are insects of extremely high status. They are considered pure because they subsist on dew and lofty because they perch in high treetops. An ancient analogy in China suggests that a high-ranking official should resemble a cicada — residing high, eating a pure diet, and with sharp eyes.

The headgear of rulers and nobles depicted cicadas in Chinese culture.
The headgear of rulers and nobles incorporated a golden image of a cicada with prominent eyes. (Image: via Smithsonian Institution)

Also in antiquity, the headgear of rulers and nobles incorporated a golden image of a cicada with prominent eyes. The emblem signaled refinement, modesty, and full awareness of one’s surroundings.

The symbolism of cicadas in Chinese culture

In China, cicadas have been integrally related to the symbol of resurrection, rebirth, and immortality. And the reason behind this is that the insect has a fascinating and amazing life cycle. When the insects newly hatch, they quickly drop from tree branches and burrow into the ground. They live underground for almost 17 years and nourish themselves by depending solely on tree roots.

After 17 long years, they face sunlight when they come out from the ground. After that, cicadas climb very high into the treetops. It is there that their outer skin splits open and an adult cicada emerges. Needless to say, the entire process is a long one.

This lifecycle of the cicada is thought to represent the spirits of dead people who are on their path to an eternal existence in the transcendental world. The concept of rebirth and immortality probably emanates from this. Direct symbolism of the cicada’s life cycle can be seen in China’s Han Dynasty. When a person died, a jade amulet, which was in the shape of a cicada, was placed on the corpse’s tongue. This was done in the hope of bringing immortality and rebirth.

A cicada jade piece.
When a person died, a jade amulet, which was in the shape of a cicada, was placed on the corpse’s tongue. (Image: via Smithsonian Institution)

The cicada in literature, fashion, and the arts

In China, cicadas have been seen prominently in literary forms — both in poetry and prose forms. The symbolism is mainly related to immortality, rebirth, and sometimes even to that of pathos. Various poets and authors have used this insect in different ways to symbolize various aspects and emotions.

Take, for example, an anecdote from Zhuangzi, a compilation of writings by Zhuangzi (late fourth century BCE) and others. While out in a chestnut grove aiming to shoot a jay, Zhuangzi was distracted by a cicada in the shade. A mantis devoured the cicada before it was, in turn, caught by the jay. Unsettled by the natural cycle of one species preying on the next, Zhuangzi decided not to shoot the jay. The tale has been turned into a pithy saying about the circle of life: “As the mantis catches the cicada, the jay is just behind.”

Along with literature, the use of cicada designs is also seen in clothing. Expensive threads are used for stitching and embroidering the shape of cicadas on robes, dresses, and other apparel in China. Images or imprints of cicadas are also prominently located on ornaments, utensils, earthenware, and various other art forms. 

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