Cicadas, Chinese and Others / by Jeannine Cook

 Gold cicada on jade leaf

Gold cicada on jade leaf

The wonderful Ming exhibition I wrote about led me to thinking about cicadas. I have always loved their songs, Mediterranean, coastal Georgian and many other versions; to me, their heady, penetrating calls have always symbolised summer days of happiness and peace. There are about 2,500 cicada species in the world, not all identified, and their name derives from the Latin, cicada, or tree cricket. Some cicadas sing at night, others by day. Some live in trees, nestled amid the bark.

 Cicada camouflaged on an olive tree, Kassiopi, Corfu, Greece.

Cicada camouflaged on an olive tree, Kassiopi, Corfu, Greece.

Others, such as the eastern North American varieties, live underground, feeding on fluid from tree roots and emerging as nymphs every thirteen or seventeen years in vast numbers of males to live a riotous life for four to six weeks of maturation, singing and copulation, before retreating underground again for another thirteen to seventeen years. Quite a life style! Male cicadas sing not in the usual insect way of rubbing different body parts together, but by thrumming and vibrating tymbals, membranes which are parts of the exoskeleton on the insect's abdomen.

 Tibicen linnei, Annual Cicada

Tibicen linnei, Annual Cicada

These beautiful, large insects have been regarded as very special by many civilisations down the ages.  Already in the Neolithic period in China, jade versions of the cicada or tsan have been found. They were thought to be an important element of burial practices from those early times. These jade cicadas were placed on the tongue of the deceased, part of a set of jade plugs or coverings for the whole body. Cicadas represented rebirth and immortality, and thus their presence at burial sites would help to ensure a rebirth, just as the cicada re-emerges from the ground once more. Perhaps their placement on the tongue also evoked the cicada's song, the loudest of all insects.

 Cicada. Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.). China. Nephrite. (Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection)

Cicada. Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.). China. Nephrite. (Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection)

 Jade Amulet, Han Dynasty Image courtesy of the Metroploitan Museum, New York)

Jade Amulet, Han Dynasty Image courtesy of the Metroploitan Museum, New York)

The poor man's version of these burial cicadas was made of glass, cut with a wheel to shape the flat wings.

 Burial Cicada, glass,(wheel cut) (Courtesy of the Bristol Museum)

Burial Cicada, glass,(wheel cut) (Courtesy of the Bristol Museum)

During the late Shang period ((1766–1122 BC), cicadas had also been incorporated in Chinese bronze vessels and other objects.

 China Dagger Axe (Kui) with Masks, Cicadas, and Bird, Late Shang dynasty, late Anyang phase, or early Western Zhou dynasty, about 1100-950 B.C. Metalwork; bronze; weapon, Cast bronze (Image courtesy of collectionsonline.lacma.org)

China Dagger Axe (Kui) with Masks, Cicadas, and Bird, Late Shang dynasty, late Anyang phase, or early Western Zhou dynasty, about 1100-950 B.C. Metalwork; bronze; weapon, Cast bronze (Image courtesy of collectionsonline.lacma.org)

To this day in China, cicadas may not be used for burial rites, but they still occupy an important part in artistic inspiration in different media.

 A Carved Amethyst Cicada Snuff Bottle, Qing Dynasty, 18th-19th century (Image courtesy of Sotheby's)

A Carved Amethyst Cicada Snuff Bottle, Qing Dynasty, 18th-19th century (Image courtesy of Sotheby's)

 Bamboo and Cicada. Zhao Shao'ang Chinese, 1905–1998 (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Bamboo and Cicada. Zhao Shao'ang Chinese, 1905–1998 (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Cicadas became revered insects in other early cultures across Asia and beyond.  Some theorise that their shedding their skins and emerging once more, together with their reappearance from underground, all meshed with Buddhist beliefs, thus echoing the earlier associations of rebirth and immortality. Of course, the Japanese celebrated the cicada in netsuke, such an appropriate use.

 Hokufu, Japan. Cicada on Pine Cone, late 19th century Netsuke, Wood with lacquer staining (image courtesyof Collectionsonline.lacma)

Hokufu, Japan. Cicada on Pine Cone, late 19th century Netsuke, Wood with lacquer staining (image courtesyof Collectionsonline.lacma)

 Incense Burner in Shape of Cicada, Meiji Period, late 19th century, red lacquer (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Incense Burner in Shape of Cicada, Meiji Period, late 19th century, red lacquer (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York)

The nomadic Huns carried this reverence for cicadas with them as they roamed Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and beyond into Central Asia during the 1st-7th century AD.

 Hunnic Gold Cicada Brooch, C. 1st Half of the 5th Century AD

Hunnic Gold Cicada Brooch, C. 1st Half of the 5th Century AD

Probably the Huns stimulated the next wave of "cicada mania" to roll west towards Europe.

 A Late Roman to Byzantine parcel gilt silver fibula in the form of a cicada (Image courtesy of Bonhams)

A Late Roman to Byzantine parcel gilt silver fibula in the form of a cicada (Image courtesy of Bonhams)

 Merovingian Silver and Carnelian Cicada Brooch, 5th Century AD. (Image courtesy Tmeline auctions)

Merovingian Silver and Carnelian Cicada Brooch, 5th Century AD. (Image courtesy Tmeline auctions)

 Silver casket with writing utensils made by the Nuremberg goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer 1507-08–1585 Silver cicada is at lower left.

Silver casket with writing utensils made by the Nuremberg goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer 1507-08–1585 Silver cicada is at lower left.

 Victorian, circa 1900, Clement Massier Majolica wall pocket which features the pocket modelled in the form of a cicada, wings tucked behind its back.

Victorian, circa 1900, Clement Massier Majolica wall pocket which features the pocket modelled in the form of a cicada, wings tucked behind its back.

 Lucien Gaillard, Art Nouveau glass Perfume bottle, c. 1923

Lucien Gaillard, Art Nouveau glass Perfume bottle, c. 1923

While cicadas were inspiring artists and craftsmen down the millennia, they were also inspiring writers. Homer talks of them in the Iliad, Artistotle describes them in his History of Animals, as does Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. The Greeks and Romans had many stories about cicadas that are delightful. In the Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji, cicadas become a metaphor for a beloved shedding her gown as does the insect shed its shell when molting. The classic 14th century Chinese novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, combines the name of the sable tails (diāo) and jade cicada decorations (chán) on the hats of high-ranking officials for the name of the heroine, Dianochan.

More recently, the cicada's symbolism has widened. The French regard them as insouciant, as was illustrated by Jean de la Fontaine in his story, La Cigale et la Fourmi (The Cicada and the Ant), based on one of Aesop's famous fables. The Japanese associate the end of summer with them.  The Argentinian composer-poet, Maria Elena Walsh, drew on the cicada's connections with immortality to write a famous song of defiance and survival, "Como la Cigarra", ("Like the Cicada").

I understand why so many of us relate to these amazing insects. They remind us of the complexities of nature with their unusual life cycles. They intimate that life can go on again after seeming pauses. Their elegance of wing patterns and unusually large size draw our attention and respect. They sing of love, loudly, insistently, with their own particular tunefulness.  Most of all, they have inspired wonderful creativity down the ages,for which we are all the richer.