One is signboard o which the name of the shop is given; the other is trade sign, giving the line of business. The sign board is usually in the shape of an oblong wooden board and the trade sign often gives the commodity to be sold or items or services by means of images.
Not until the Song Dynasty, shop signs were used chiefly in restaurants and teahouses, and then drugstores, draperies, pawnshops, medicated plaster shops, hotels, tobacconists, etc. started to have a piece of cloth hanging in front of the door showing trade signs. The masterpiece Pure Brightness Day on the River displays a prosperous and noisy scene of the streets in the capital, with rows and rows of stores carrying shop signs of various types clearly seen.
When it came to the Ming and Qing dynasties, shop signs became numerous in variety following the blooming of market-place commerce, which fall largely into four categories: image sign, written sign, material object sign and symbol sign.
The image sign refers to the models of the commodities sold in the shop. In a tobacconist, an enlarged tobacco leaf and a tobacco pouch were drawn on a piece of cloth or a wooden board; in a shoe store, a model of the sole of a shoe was hanging up.
In written signs words were written or engraved as shop sign. Generally there were single-type sign and compound-type sign. The single sign was simple and clear at a glance, such as a big character “pawn” indicating a pawn shop, and a character “pickle” referring to a sauce and pickle shop. The compound-type sign gave first place to figures accompanied by corresponding words. For example, in the
The real object sign refers to the sample goods hung at the door of a shop, such as worsted of all colors, leg wrappings, odd bits of cloth, etc. to denote a draper’s.
The symbol sign was originally a token of the shop, something like the present-day logo, which was accepted by the public in the passage of years and became the sign of the shop.
The shop signs ware made chiefly from paper, cloth, leather, bamboo, wood, aluminum, iron, and copper and tin, chosen according to the nature of the commodity, and the scope and features of the business. Its technological process includes wood carving, embroidery, iron sheet galvanizing, weaving, etc. Traditional Chinese calligraphy, painting, real object model, etc. are often used in designing shop signs to give a rich folk flavor and unique national style. Different nationalities tend to use the totem they worship for major patterns on the signboard. For instance, as the Han people set a great store by dragon, the horizontal bar of the sign board is often carved in the shape of a dragon.
The art of the layout and decorations in shop signs calls for symmetry. Therefore, signs are usually placed on either side of the shop to give a perceptive effect of balance. To better bring play to publicity, signs are displayed in different forms, some fixed on a stone base, some hung under the eaves, some written or drawn on the wall, doorpost or lintel of a door, and some sticking out to the street with a long pole. In coloring, red, yellow, blue, black, and white are most popular, in particular red or yellow, which symbolizes auspiciousness and jubilation. In decorative patterns, coin, dragon, cloud, the character fu (blessings), etc. representing propitiousness and wealth are preferred. In addition, the cross bar on which shop sign is hanging is often made into the shape of dragon or bat to symbolize “soaring like a holy dragon” or “good luck descending upon the house.”
Merchants in traditional Chinese society mostly hold in awe the God of Wealth and founders of their business. The reverence for their shrines, statues and spirit tablets is in time extended to the shop signs. In the eye of the merchants, shop signs are symbols of “treasures coming into the house,” and “fortune rolling in.” There are various taboos in the use of shop signs. For example, the shop signs are not “hung up” but “invited,” because the character gua (hang up) is believed to be unlucky. Similarly, the falling of shop signs on the ground is also considered unlucky, because the God of Wealth might be offended even by such a petty thing. From this, we can see the folk ways and social conventions behind the traditional handicrafts.