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

May 10, 2021
Originally published on May 11, 2021 12:41 am

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.

Wang Zhen, Cicada on tree branch, Modern period, 1919, Fan mounted as album leaf, ink on gold-flecked paper, Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art, F1998.222.2
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

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.

Jade Cicada with Patches of Gold Foil, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.50.274.
Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College / Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum

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.

"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."

Ornamental Plaque, Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420), 4th–5th century, China, Gilt bronze, gold, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and white coral.
The Met

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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Our new cicada overlords have officially arrived.


CHANG: Brood X has emerged in states from North Carolina to Michigan, but cicadas are global citizens. They show up in regular cycles all over the world. And in China, as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, the critters are symbolically significant.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In ancient China, Neolithic settlers carved cicadas from jade and placed them on the tongues of the dead, symbols of transcendence and eternal life says Haiyan Lee, a professor of east Asian studies at Stanford.

HAIYAN LEE: Cicadas are actually a quite prominent creature in Chinese literature and culture.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Chinese).

ULABY: Like in a folk tale about a little cicada who protects a big bird from getting devoured by a snake.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Chinese).

ULABY: An animated version's on YouTube.

LEE: There are actually quite a few folk tales.

ULABY: Lee says at least one is based on the cicadas' distinctive sound.


LEE: Which sound like they're saying in Chinese (speaking Chinese).

ULABY: Which means in English, I know, I know.

LEE: This is a stretch to American ear, but (laughter)...

ULABY: But let's go with it. This sound of cicadas was recorded in China a few years ago.


ULABY: In folktales, cicadas can be annoying know-it-alls, like the one where a cicada wants to learn to fly. He goes to a phoenix, who teaches him to hop from tree to tree. That's lesson one - basic. Then it's time for lesson two, a more advanced lesson.

LEE: And the cicada says, I know, I know (laughter) - right? - (speaking Chinese). And he didn't show up.

ULABY: Moral - you'll never learn to fly if you don't show up to class. Real cicadas have wings that are long and veiny, and they leave behind creepy, fragile shells. Jan Stuart thinks they're awesome.

JAN STUART: My advice is just look at them in Chinese art. They're beautiful.

ULABY: Stuart curates Chinese art at the Smithsonian Institution's Sackler Gallery. Cicadas, she says, captured the imagination of nature-loving artists who painted them perched on treetops and sculpted them in gold for kings to wear as ornaments.

STUART: Their eyes are huge. Insects with these huge eyes, so you have a sense that they're all seeing, that they're aware of everything.

ULABY: Those are the qualities that helped make cicadas a symbol of wise leadership in Chinese art. They're lofty, sitting on trees and pure, eating only tree sap and dew. They're intermediaries between the dark ground below and heaven. And cicadas, says Jan Stewart, do something else that's beautiful and relevant right now. They remind us over and over that new life, regeneration, is real.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEACH FOSSILS' "SAINT IVY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.