whole chest lid

Sat, 02/17/2024 - 02:05

Can anyone tell me the story depicted on the lid of this camphor wood chest - or is it a standard theme? The two illustrations on the side panels lead up to the final illustration on the lid. On the lid we see a travelling merchant displaying a bolt of cloth and a young woman, whom he hopes will be a customer, tying a length of it around her waist under the baleful gaze of her elderly husband. But what is the significance of the stealthy figure creeping in through an opening on the right? Top left we see a horseman riding over a bridge. Is he coming to the rescue? The border decoration of bats lends a sinister tone to the scene.

The chest was among the effects of my uncle Leslie Warren and was shipped to England in 1938 when his wife, Cicely left Hong Kong.

On the first side panel below a young woman says farewell to her elderly mother and sisters.

The second side panel shows the young woman arriving at her new home. More explanation is needed about the rider of the departing horse, if any and the significance of what the young woman is holding. Ideas welcome.

2nd side panel of chest
2nd side panel of chest, by jill


1st side panel of chest
1st side panel of chest, by jill
Date picture taken
20 May 2022


Hi Jill,

Bats as decoration in any form in Southern China generally means blessings, thus it is meant to be Good.

We do not associate bats to vampires anyway.


That’s very interesting and important to know when interpreting South Asian art. In European art and literature nocturnal creatures such as owls and bats are considered “spooky” and even ill-omened. If bats denote a blessing in Southern China, the design of the chest’s border carries a completely different meaning to the one I had assumed. It’s never too late to learn something. Thank you!

The round icon at the tips of the bat wings is a symbol for longevity. The one missing is a symbol for $. These three usually go together.

Thank you for this extra piece of information. I’m wondering if the linen chest was a wedding present to welcome the newly married couple to Hong Kong  in 1923 - perhaps from one of Charles Warren’s Chinese business contacts. What is the symbol for wealth? 

The Chinese characters for bat are 蝙蝠 (pin fook), the second character having the same pronunciation as 福 (auspicious). Therefore bat is associated with good fortune, not something shady or evil as in Western folklore. It is customary to decorate the rims of pictures with bat symbols.

That’s very interesting that the pronunciation of the word is the most important factor and determines the character of the symbol. Thank you!

I think the camphorwood chest was a vital piece of storage equipment long before the ´30s to protect clothing from moths and other vermin. My uncle’s wife took three to England but left two with her sister - later stolen. The pictured chest that she took with her when she emigrated to Canada must have been her favourite.

You don't show a photo of the lock and clasp on the front of the chest. At least on ours, there are a few characters there, which explain which story is carved on the chest. Does yours have such characters near the lock?

The lock and key are shown at the left of the photo titled “1st side panel”. The design is very different to yours. The chest is in Canada with my cousin’s granddaughter and I am in England. I don’t think I shall be able to give you a better picture, I’m afraid.

Hi There,

The two chests shown are of different built.  One of them had a lid to be opened at the top.  This is more common to store clothes.  The other has two doors on the front side like a cupboard.


Regarding the two figures in the doorway in the photo '2nd side panel', they appear to have a large nose, with the figure on the left also having what looks like a large ear.  I believe large ears symbolize wisdom, and a large nose symbolizes good fortune.

Corrections welcome!