Cicada in Chinese Folklore

by Garland Riegel, (bibliography)
Reproduced with permission from the Melsheimer Entomological Series
(a publication of the Entomological Society of Pennsylvania.)

Some anthropologists and archaeologists have known for years that the ancient Chinese regarded cicadas as symbols of rebirth or immortality (4, 12, 16) in much the same way as the early Egyptians thought of the sacred scarab. Unlike the latter case, however, few western entomologists are aware of cicada symbolism used by the early Chinese. It is not mentioned in any English language entomology textbook of which I am aware. It is noted in Lucy Clausen’s remarkable little book, Insect Fact and Folklore (10).

Writing in Japan, the colorful and prolific Lafcadio Hearn in his charming essay on cicadas (“S?mi”), reported: “In view of many complaints of Japanese poets about the noisiness of s?mi, the reader may be surprised to learn that out of s?mi-skins there used to be made in both China and Japan-perhaps upon homeopathic principles-a medicine for the cure of ear-ache!” (15)

While on the subject of medicine, Clausen (10) reports that “One of the most interesting and remarkable species of cicada in the Orient is Huechys sanguinea. There it is called `chu-ki,’ and also “The red medicinal cicada.” It has brilliant red and black markings and is the only known cicada used as a blistering agent.” Chou (9) says that “Some of them [insects in Chinese pharmacy] have been used up to the present day, e.g. the exuviae of cicadas as an anti-febrile…”

Needham (21) in speaking of alchemy and chemistry in ancient China says: “Several alchemists are mentioned in official historiography of the time. The Chin Shu (History of the Chin Dynasty)” stated “Then there was Shan Tao-Khai, a contemporary of the Central Asian missionary monk and thaumaturgist Fo-Thu-Teng (fl. +310); he achieved a cicada-like metamorphosis by ingesting pills.” Needham (19) in discussing scientific thought in ancient China, tells of Ko Hung (fl. +325), the great alchemist in Chinese history.” It was reported that “Someone said to Ko Hung:… How is it possible for us human beings to find a method which will give constant youth to those who must grow old, or to revive those who must die? And yet you say that (by the power of alchemy) you can cause a cicada to live for a year. …Don’t you think you are wrong?”

Returning to Lafcadio Hearn (15), in a serious vein he says, “As the metamorphosis of the butterfly supplied to old Greek thought an emblem of the soul’s ascension, so the natural history of the cicada has furnished Buddhism with similitudes and parables for the teaching of doctrine. Man sheds his body only as the s?mi sheds its skin. But each reincarnation obscures the memory of the previous one: we remember our former existence no more than the s?mi remembers the shell from which it has emerged… This cast-off skin… in Buddhist poetry… becomes a symbol of early pomp, -the hollow show of human greatness.”

Hearn was writing of Buddhist thought as he knew it in Japan just before 1900. It is probable that the cicada as a symbol of rebirth predated Buddhism in China by 500 to a thousand years, as these insects are found on ritual bronze vessels of the Shang dynasty (1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 22, 23, 24, 25) and carved bone spatulas (17) dating from about 1500 to 1030 B.C. The Buddha was born about 500 years before Christ. Silcock (23) reports cicadas among the carvings on the antler of an extinct species of deer found in the excavations at An-Yang, which he dates as “?1766 B.C.”

Most authors are agreed that the cicada was used by the Chinese as a symbol of rebirth, although a few suggest additional (17, 18) or alternative meanings (3) such as “harvest time,” “autumn,” “fertility and abundance,” or “life giving principle.”

The depictions of cicadas on the early bronzes vary from quite realistic (6) to highly stylized (13, 16, 17, 22, 24) and almost leaflike (16). In some cases they are associated with another beast. Munsterberg (17) says that “in several instances the tiger is shown spitting out a cicada.” Later he says that “the t’ao t’ieh daemon is also frequently shown with a cicada on his outstretched tongue.” Bachhofer (2) refers to dragons in moderate relief, “their bodies… covered with a diminutive cicada pattern.” Speaking of bronze vessels he states that the heads of serpents are identical with the heads of cicadas. Certainly the “snake-head” with a “tongue” that rattles, terminating handle of a ritual bronze sword shown on page 39 in Fontein and Wu (13), looks more like a cicada than a snake head. Could the rattle have even been an imitation of a cicada’s call? Even a rattlesnake does not rattle with its head, and in this case there is apparently no snake body, only the “head.” The rattle mechanism looks like a wing, not a snake’s tongue.

In addition to bronzes, cicadas have been found decorating Shang white pottery ware (2). Laufer (16) reproduces (from ancient manuscripts) cicadas on ceremonial jade axes, jade cups, and a jade buckle which also includes a mantis.

These “sacred animal symbols” (17), cicadas, were used during the Han period (202 B.C. – 220 A.D.) or earlier as jade carvings (9), variously called “funeral jades,” “amulets of death,” “tongue amulets,” or “Han y?,” meaning “placed in the mouth,” according to Burling and Hart (3), who note that the term does not mean “made in the Han dynasty,” as some students assume, but that the items so designated “may date from many centuries earlier or later.”

Cicada-shaped funeral jades are illustrated by several authors (6, 8, 10, 16, 24, 26, 27, 29). These carvings were placed on the tongue of deceased persons apparently to induce resurrection by sympathetic magic (18). Some are rather flat and stylized; others are quite life-like and show much detail. Most are about life sized or slightly larger. Clausen (10) says that the color of the jade selected for carving was usually brown. Most of the ones I have seen are white, grayish or greenish.

One can imagine the ancient Chinese observing cicadas, seeing the full-grown nymphs emerging from the soil and attaching themselves to tree trunks for the quiescent period before the final molt to winged adulthood. It is surprising that they considered this “life form death” – the lively adult resurrected from the immobile last-stage nymph?

It should be noted that, although cicada amulets were usually made from jade, there are records of glass having been used (3, 25).

It is probable that Laufer (16) was wrong in calling specimens 5 and 6 of his plate 36 “tongue-amulets.” As they are drilled for a cord or wire they are probably girdle pendants as described below. I believe also that he was wrong in saying “the lines engraved on 1 and 2 explain themselves by serving the purpose on marking the parts of the tongue.” The lines shown merely delineate the edges of the front wings, the pronotum, and other morphological features. He shows a drawing of the underside of specimen 2 which he says is “laid out in a different design of lines.” The reason for the difference is that the sculptor, however crudely, attempted to show the clypeus , beak, legs, and ventral segments of the abdomen! It is not a “design.”

Needham (20), in discussing voyages and discoveries of the ancient Chinese, and Mayas as described by the Chinese, but even stranger that on both sides of the Pacific, jade beads or cicadas should have been placed in the mouth of the dead, and astonishment turned to conviction when one learned that in all these civilizations the jade corpse-amulet were sometimes painted with the life-giving color of red cinnabar or hematite.” He also says that the Amerindian peoples mostly place jade beads in the mouth, but they also carve jade cicadas to go alongside.” The Mexican author and artist Covarrubias (11) has essentially the same information. The Oraibi Indians of Arizona, according to Clausen (10), also thought that the cicada’s life cycle symbolized resurrection.

Speiser (25) and Thompson (28) are wrong in referring to jade cicadas as “crickets.” This mistake may be due to the fact that the ancient Chinese sometimes kept male cicadas in order to enjoy their “songs” 9, 10(), as they did with crickets. The amount of misinformation regarding the life histories of cicadas in various references is astounding. However, Needham (19) reports the following accurate observation by early Chinese as related in the “Records of Rites of the elder Tai” in the chapter entitled “The metamorphosis of Life,” written about the second century B.C.: “The habits of the various classes of animals are very different. Thus silkworms eat but do not drink, while cicadas drink but do not eat.” And Chou (9) reports that Liu An, writing 2000 years ago, made known that “cicadas were transformed from their larvae living in the soil.”

Chou (9) also says that “nymphs of cicada… served as delicious viands for the nobles, as indicated in books published before the twelfth century B.C.”

Cicada girdle pendants or toggles (chui-tzu) (5, 16, 29) are very similar in appearance to funeral jades and may have overlapped them in time. As Eberhard (12) points out, there is a whole literature devoted to Japanese girdle pendants (netsuke), but not so for the Chinese toggles. Writing about 1939 he remarked that they were frequently “seen in current use.” Like netsuke these pendants were carved in many forms, but a popular subject was the cicada. Eberhard notes that “The cicada is a very old symbol. It occurs as early as the old ritual texts as an animal symbolizing rebirth… Thus in ancient times it occurs as a small piece of sculpture which is placed on the tongue of the dead. The cicada as a toggle has the same meaning.”

The old Chinese robes had no pockets; therefore, toggles were attached by a cord to objects such as knives or burning-glasses and were used as counter-balances over a belt or girdle. Eberhard (12) gives an amusing account of all the equipment that might be suspended from the griddle on ceremonial occasions. Several writers (3, 6, 8, 25) mention that jade cicadas have been worn by the Chinese as “charms.” Cicadas of the toggle type are still being carved from jade of various colors and are available for such use today.

Cicadas are fascinating insects. They are large, conspicuous, and attract attention with their interesting “songs.” No wonder the ancient Chinese accorded them such a high position in their folklore and in their art. Watching cicadas can engender awe in the observer. One student remarked that he had always considered cicadas rather magical, and could easily see how they came to have spiritual significance in old China.

Akihide Cicada Netsuke

Akihide Cicada Netsuke

Chinese Jade Girde-Pendant

Chinese Jade Girde-Pendant, Han Dynasty, 206-220 B.C.

Chinese Tongue Amulet

Chinese Tongue Amulet, brown jade, Han Dynasty, 206-220 B.C

Japanese Cicada Netsuke

Ren? Lalique Japanese Cicada Netsuke