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Brood X Is Back — But Cicadas Have Been In Chinese Art For Millennia

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<em>Album Leaf of Flowers and Insects</em>, bequest of the Hofer Collection of the Arts of Asia, 1985.904.6
Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum

Album Leaf of Flowers and Insects, bequest of the Hofer Collection of the Arts of Asia, 1985.904.6

Our new cicada overlords have officially arrived.

You might be using Cicada Safari to track Brood X, which appears to be slowly emerging from the earth in the U.S. all the way from Florida to Michigan. But cicadas are global citizens. In China, the critters have long been symbolically significant.

"Cicadas are actually quite prominent in Chinese literature, art and culture," says Haiyan Lee, a professor of east Asian languages and cultures and of comparative literature at Stanford University. They're even part of military strategy, she adds. Among the legendary Thirty-Six Strategems, a collection of essays a little like The Art of War, is a maneuver called "Slough off the Cicada's Golden Shell." It refers to creating a decoy to escape from a stronger enemy.

Cicadas pop up in Chinese folktales, too, like this animated one on YouTube about a friendship between a cicada and a bird. And they're in classical poetry, like the great Tang Dynasty poem "Ode to the Cicada," written from the point of view of a political prisoner.

The insects' appearances stretch back 4,000 years, to a time when ancient settlers carved cicadas from jade and placed them on the tongues of the dead before burial, evoking transcendence and eternal life.

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"The earliest examples we have date to the Neolithic period," says Sarah Laursen, a curator of Chinese art at the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Mass. "There's one Han Dynasty cicada in our collection that's my favorite. This jade cicada is smooth and flat and fits in the palm of your hand. The carving's very simple, just a few lines. The wings are tucked in close to the body. Now, real cicadas have clear wings covered with delicate veins — but most jade cicadas are just plain. This one is special. It has tiny triangles of gold foils showing just how precious it was."

Cicadas were associated with nobility, adds Smithsonian curator Jan Stuart, who wrote about cicadas in Chinese art in an essay for the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. "They have huge eyes," she says, evoking visionary leadership. "And they eat only they purest of pure things, tree sap."

That suggests cicadas have a sort of incorruptible nature. "But they're in this sort of muddied earth," Stuart continues. "And then they emerge but they emerge unsullied, and they fly to the highest branches of a tree." Lofty and transformative, cicadas could be easily read, she suggests, as intermediaries between earth and heaven.

Some people find cicadas scary-looking, with their red, bulging eyes, veiny wings and creepy, fragile shells they leave behind. "My advice is just look at them in Chinese art," Stuart laughs. "They're beautiful."

And especially today, she adds, a potent and enduring symbol of transformation and regeneration.

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