The Chinese are not spooked by bats, in fact they really rather like them. Bats feature prominently in Chinese art, embroidered on silk robes for an Emperor, painted on porcelain, carved in lacquer ware or wood. On the landing outside our apartment is a beautifully carved screen which features a bat and fishes – the bats represent good fortune and the fish represent wealth – what more could one want?!
Now that I’ve told you about bats being depicted on Chinese items, you will start noticing it yourself .*
In the USA and Canada, the bat has become irrevocably linked to witches, demons, vampires and general spookiness – mainly as a result of the increasingly commercialised celebration of Halloween in North America.
In the UK they are mainly thought of as a bloody nuisance’. This is because all bats in Britain are protected by law, and when they settle in churches, houses, or other buildings it is almost impossible to be allowed to remove them – despite the damage their urine and faeces causes to fixtures and furnishings. Some years ago I read the despairing letter a country vicar had written to the local newspaper who was at his wits end about how to contain the damage to the ancient paneling in his church which had become home to a colony of over 200 bats – he ended his letter by saying “…if only they would stay in the belfry where they belong.”!
In English, the words bats/batty are often used to indicate a level of craziness, obsession, eccentricity etc. You might hear someone say ‘Jim is bats about vintage cars’ meaning he really loves them; or someone else saying ‘that old man is completely batty, you won’t get much sense out of him’.
Then there are the many misconceptions about bats. Women, in particular, seem to be afraid of them, they fear that bats will fly down and become entangled in their hair – this very common belief is highly unlikely to ever happen, bats will do almost anything to keep away from people, certainly it is not a common situation, not even an uncommon situation – it is as rare as finding a hen with teeth.
As experts say about many wild creatures: ‘they are more afraid of humans than humans are of them’. Bats are also feared as spreaders of disease, – whilst that is always a possibility – but there is little evidence to show it actually happens regularly; and as for them flying in to your home to suck your blood whilst you are asleep– forget it! Unless of course you are living in the middle of a Central or South American jungle or a stone’s throw from the Amazon river – which rules out most of us – and even then it would be a rare occurrence.
Having bats in your neighbourhood is the sign of a clean environment, and as most bat species live on insects, they are helpful as they reduce the need for pesticides.
In China, unlike in the West, bats are considered lucky.
Bats have been living in China for millennia; they were (and are) revered for their longevity and for the way they pollinated some fruits – particularly peaches.
As I have mentioned in other blog posts, the Chinese language has many, many words that are pronounced the same, but written with a different character. These words are often paired up, with one representing the other in symbols and puns.
One of the most common designs you see is that of five bats surrounding the symbol shou which represents longevity, this also links to the Chinese idea of bats, as bats often live in caves and some colonies of bats are believed to have been living in such caves for over 1000 years.
The Chinese word for bat (fu 蝠) sounds identical to the word for good fortune(fu 福) making bats a popular Chinese rebus. Five bats together (wufu 五福), represent the ‘Five Blessings’:
Long life, wealth, health, love of virtue and a peaceful death.
I have never been a particular fan of bats, as I had bought in to the many misconceptions about them. Now I am trying hard to change my views and understand these amazing creatures which are the only mammal that is able to fly; however I have quite a way to go before I will believe, as the Chinese do, that they bring good fortune.
* When I was staying in Cape Town recently, the guest room in my friend’s house had a jar on an upper shelf, and – of course – it showed the lucky five bats and a shou symbol!