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Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

Chinese people deeply respect the elderly and traditionally consider a long existence to be one of the most important blessings in a person’s life. Here are many examples of how artists have combined a variety of longevity symbols to reinforce the potency of this concept.

Correctly identifying figures is crucial to deciphering an obscure story scene. Looking at this featured image, for example, some may think that the two figures in non-specific attires on a dragon and a phoenix are anonymous Daoist immortals. But Dr Yibin Ni would tell you the story otherwise…

On the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar Chinese year, young men and women will celebrate their traditional ‘Valentine’s Day’, Qixi Festival (七夕节). The custom can be traced back to an ancient story.

More often than not, traditional Chinese motifs or symbols are not receiving their deserved attention, being given simplistic or inadequate labels and inaccurate explanations in our museums, catalogues, or even scholarly writing. The treatment of many pictorial representations of the thousand-year-old literary anecdote ‘A bamboo counter is being added to the house in the sea (海屋添筹 hai wu tian chou)’ is a case in point.

People who are not familiar with Chinese history and parables may have the impression that the above image is a genre painting of fisherman’s daily life. But in fact, there is more meaning to it. Dr Yibin Ni will explain the story in detail and how this story scene has been presented in various forms of artworks.

On Duanwu Festival, Chinese people have a variety of practices, such as drinking rice wine sprayed with realgar powder and hanging images of the Heavenly Master on the lintel. Where did this tradition come from and how were these practices depicted on various artefacts? Here are Dr Yibin Ni’s explanations.

The following article is a discussion of the substitution of a mythical beast for a horse as Grand Duke Jiang’s mount on three classic porcelain vases adorned with the same story scene of ‘Bo Yi and Shu Qi Trying to Stop the Mighty Zhou Army’. It focuses on the origin and evolution of the two disparate but homophonic expressions ‘Sibuxiang’ in late imperial China and clarifies the terminological confusion in the contemporary world.

Through analysing a famous theme that depicts Bo Yi and Shu Qi Stopping the Zhou Army, Dr Yibin Ni has compared a number of porcelain vessels from Ming and Qing dynasties, and demonstrated his unique insight which can facilitate the correct dating of Chinese antiques.

When you mistake a motif in a traditional Chinese picture, you could have misinterpreted the meaning of the whole image intended by the ancient craftsman. Dr Yibin Ni has used the following example to illustrate the hidden meaning of a series of images in the context of Chinese pun rebus culture.

Have you ever been puzzled by the description of ‘figural paintings’ for Chinese porcelains listed by various museums and auction catalogues? In fact, many Chinese paintings with figures refer to ancient stories and have meanings behind the scenes. Here is an unusual story about an official and his pet crane.

Story scenes painted on Chinese porcelains are sometimes mysterious and challenging to understand. Dr Yibin Ni, whose specialised research is to demystify figures and story scenes, and decode motifs, symbols and pun rebuses in Chinese art, is here to tell the modern world about a story that happened two and a half thousand years ago in ancient China.

The story of the statesman Bing Ji (丙吉) inquiring about a panting buffalo in ancient China has been illustrated in various forms in traditional Chinese art. It is meant to praise high-ranking officials who can prioritise their duties for their country. However, such famous story on Chinese porcelains has often been misinterpreted. Dr Yibin Ni has found out those mistakes on a number of occasions during his art research. Here is what he has to say.

Do you wonder why there is a goat drawing a carriage, rather than a horse, on traditional Chinese art pictures? Why are there so many people watching someone in a chariot? What is the story behind it? Here is what Dr Yibin Ni has to tell you.

The traditional theme of ‘Chen Ping Dividing Meat’(陈平分肉) is often mistakenly referred to as Chen ‘Selling Meat’ or even ‘Picture of Selling Meat’ in Chinese art reference books, which reduces a historically significant theme to a mere genre painting. See how Dr Yibin Ni analyses this with examples.

Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303-361) is often said to be the greatest calligrapher in Chinese history. He has his biography in the official history of Jin 晋 dynasty (c. 265-420). One anecdote in it concerns his fame for his calligraphic skill and his love of geese. A Daoist priest in the neighbourhood raised a handsome flock of geese. Wang Xizhi paid a special visit to him in order to see the geese and found it hard to tear himself away from them. He pleaded with the priest to sell the flock to him. The geese raiser made him a counteroffer: ‘I will let you have the whole flock if you write a copy of Laozi’s Daodejing (道德经) text for me.’ Wang Xizhi willingly finished the job and went home happily with the geese.

Ever since the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), there are two basic types of composition depicting Wang’s love of geese. One type shows Wang watching geese in the river from the bank; the other features him being offered a goose by his servant or the priest.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

The flying mammal bat is called bian fu (蝙蝠) in Chinese. Image of the bat including its various stylised forms are often used in Chinese art to express an auspicious meaning, as ‘蝠 (fu)’ in ‘蝙蝠’ puns on ‘福 (fu)’ which means ‘good luck’, ‘good fortune’, and/or ‘happiness’ in Chinese. Therefore, one or more bats flying in the sky towards people is an auspicious pun rebus design popular in traditional China.

Related Pun Pictures:

May unexpected good luck descend on you! 喜从天降

The character 龟 gui for ‘tortoise’ is explained in volume 13 of the annotated version of the oldest dictionary in China, Shuowen jiezi 说文解字注 (Explanations of Simple Graphs and Analyses of Composite Graphs). There is a quote from Liu Xiang (刘向, 77 BCE – 6 BCE), the Han-dynasty imperial librarian, in the annotation, which says ‘… Tortoises last long. The tortoise lives for a thousand year and, therefore, can be a medium to communicate with spirits (龟之言久,龟千岁而灵).’ During the early fourth century, the Jin (晋) dynasty scholar Ge Hong (葛洪, 283 – 343) complied The Baopuzi (抱朴子) ‘Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity’. In the chapter entitled ‘Rejoinders to Popular Conceptions (对俗)’, he wrote, ‘Once you live, you will die. The tortoise and the crane can live for a long time. We know that they live long and then we can learn from their way of life to realise our own longevity.’ These thoughts laid the foundation for the Chinese to regard the tortoise as a longevity symbol. In the same chapter, Ge Hong also quoted from an earlier book that ‘The one-thousand-year-old tortoise has five colours and … floats on a lotus leaf.’ Therefore, corresponding images were created to enhance their owners’ health and life expectancy. Naturally, the tortoise accompanies immortals and fairies to indicate their everlasting state.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

Yang Shen (杨慎, 1488-1559), alias Sheng’an (升庵), is a literatus and poet in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). He recorded in Volume Ninety-Four of Sheng’an Additional Works a folklore anecdote: ‘In the northern dialect, there is no difference in sound between the he 合 for “coming together” and the he 鹤 for “crane”. There are people who painted six cranes and a Chinese cedar tree to form a pun rebus design meaning “liu he tong chun (六合同春), i.e. May the whole universe prosper in eternal spring”.’ (杨慎《升庵外集》卷九十四:“北之语合鹤迥然不分,故有绘六鹤及椿树为图者,取六合同春之义”. ) The Chinese phrase ‘liu he 六鹤’ for ‘six cranes’ puns on the phrase ‘liu he 六合’ for ‘six directions’, i.e., heaven, earth, north, south, east, and west, namely, ‘the universe’. The Chinese cedar or mahogany tree, i.e., toona sinensis, is called ‘chun 椿’ tree in Chinese and is used as a pun on ‘chun 春’ for ‘the spring season’.

Unfortunately, there are no examples of this ingenious ancient design passed down. However, there is a related pun rebus design extant on ancient porcelain and other handcrafted art works. This design consists of three key elements: deer, crane, and the wu tong 梧桐 tree, or Chinese parasol tree. In some Chinese dialects, the combination of the Chinese characters ‘lu 鹿’ and ‘he 鹤’ for ‘deer and crane’ makes a pun on ‘liu he 六合’ for ‘six directions’ or ‘the universe’. The image of the wu tong 梧桐 tree, or Chinese parasol tree in the design cues the concept of ‘tong chun 同春’, meaning ‘sharing the spring season’. The pun rebus design appears as early as in the Ming dynasty on a Longquan celadon garden seat. As a culturally cherished picture, it also appears on a porcelain bottle vase and a table screen both crafted in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

The diligent Japanese scholar Nozaki Nobuchika 野崎诚近 collected this design in his pioneering volume on Chinese pun rebus pictures 吉祥図案解題: 支那風俗の一研究. His illustration clearly shows the three key elements that form the pun rebus. However, in the title of this picture, he literally put down Chinese characters ‘lu 鹿’ for ‘deer’ and ‘he 鹤’ for ‘crane’, instead of the concept ‘liu he 六合’ for ‘six directions’ or ‘the universe’, to which the two creatures were meant to refer.

Luckily enough, a related Qing-dynasty New Year print with both a deer and a crane on it is still in existence. On top of the picture, the Chinese phrase “liu he tong chun (六合同春), i.e. May the whole universe prosper in eternal spring” is printed verbatim. Although the careless print maker failed to include the wu tong 梧桐 tree, or Chinese parasol tree, in the design, it is evident that this was a popular auspicious theme in traditional China.

literature research: by Dr Yibin Ni

Duke Mu of the Qin State (秦穆公, died 621 BCE) was one of the so-called Five Hegemons (五霸 wuba) in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 – 476 BCE) (春秋 chunqiu). He had a daughter named ‘Nongyu (弄玉, meaning Playing Jade)’, who was a talented musician excelling at playing the sheng (笙 mouthorgan). Nongyu only wanted to marry her musical match so a recluse genius xiao (箫 flute) player, Xiao Shi (萧史), was discovered and brought to the duke.

The duke was not keen on Xiao Shi at first when he learned that the young man’s musical instrument was different from his daughter’s. However, Nongyu, who was sitting behind the screen listening to the audience, asked Xiao Shi to play a piece on his flute. Xiao did.

As soon as the first piece ended, a gust of fresh air blew in. When the tune resumed, gold-laced rosy clouds gathered from the four directions in the sky. During the third performance, a couple of white cranes danced in front of the duke’s terrace and peacocks flew in! Experiencing the magic spectacle, the duke was pleasantly amazed and his daughter cried with joy, ‘This is my man!’ It happened to be the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the traditional calendar and was supposed to be the lucky day of their marriage. They had their wedding on that very night.

The couple lived happily together for years while Xiao Shi taught his wife to imitate the singing of phoenixes on her musical instrument. Whenever they played together on the high pavilion terrace named ‘Phoenix Terrace’ specially built for them, phoenixes would flock around them. One day, the couple rode on the divine birds ascending to heaven.

The story scene depicted on the Kangxi plate in the collection of the British Museum and on the Kangxi vase in the collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY was first deciphered by Dr Yibin Ni. More detailed discussion as well as parody of this scene is available here.

In this scene, there are several Chinese longevity symbols such as the crane, the generic immortal, the pine tree, and the deer, etc. However, the proper meaning of this particular scene is not a simple assemblage of individual symbols. It is a snapshot of a coherent narrative that has been well-loved and widely consumed in the visual oeuvre that represents the Chinese longevity ideal.

The literary origin of the scene can be traced back to an anecdote collected in Notes by Dongpo (东坡志林), compiled by a prominent man of letters of the Song dynasty, Su Shi (苏轼, 1037-1101). During one chance meeting of three geriatric men, the topic of age was broached. Each one of them tried their best to exaggerate his own great age. The second speaker famously boasted, ‘After every cycle of the sea drying up and becoming mulberry fields, I put a strip of bamboo in my house as a counter and now the strips have already filled ten of the rooms.’ Later, this dramatic detail evolved into a classic allusion to longevity, a popular dream cherished by all people in China. Pictorial representations of this dramatic moment were invented and elaborated into different versions to adorn birthday presents of all kinds.

Initially, the title of the scene is, literally: ‘A bamboo counter is being added to the house in the sea (海屋添筹 hai wu tian chou)’. The first two characters of the phrase resulted from compressing the paragraph spoken by the second speaker in the story into an abbreviation consisting of the first and the last characters 海屋 hai wu (‘海水变桑田时, 吾辄下一筹, 尔来吾筹已满十间屋’). The coined two-character phrase ‘海屋 hai wu’ now means a ‘pavilion at sea’, serving as the first two characters in the set phrase. The rest two characters of the phrase ‘添筹 tianchou’ denotes the action (of a crane) adding a bamboo strip as a counter’. Thus, the four-character phrase alludes to the second speaker’s words in the original story.

During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), pun rebus designs became more and more popular in folk decorative arts. The last character of the phrase ‘筹 chou’ for ‘bamboo strip counter’, acquired a pun on ‘寿 shou’, the Chinese character for ‘longevity’. Then, the phrase virtually conveys the meaning of a birthday wish: ‘May the length of your life be eternally prolonged (海屋添寿 hai wu tian shou)’. One of the earliest mentions of this pun phrase in literature can be found in Section 22 in the second part of the book Tao Ya (匋雅), or ‘Notes of Chinese Best Pottery and Porcelain’, compiled by Chen Liu (陈浏) and published in 1910.

This research article is written by Dr Yibin Ni.

Literature:

  1. Jeffrey P. Stamen and Cynthia Volk with Yibin Ni, A Culture Revealed: Kangxi-Era Chinese Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection: Jieruitang Publishing, Bruges, 2017, p. 84-85.
  2. 倪亦斌:《仙鹤寿桃祝寿碗 暗藏海屋添筹图》,《读者欣赏》,兰州:读者出版传媒股份有限公司,2018-01,110-117 页

The story scene refers to an old Chinese saying: in the fight between the sandpiper and the clam, the fisherman has the best of it. This parable came from an ancient Chinese text entitled ‘Strategies of the Warring States (战国策 Zhanguo Ce)’. The book contains anecdotes of diplomacy and warfare during the Warring States period (5th to 3rd centuries BC).

The State of Zhao (赵国) was planning to attack the State of Yan (燕国). Su Dai (苏代) was sent by the State of Yan to the State of Zhao to try to prevent the imminent calamity. During the audience that Su Dai had with King Huiwen of Zhao (趙惠文王, 310-266 BCE, r. 298-266 BCE), he found a clever way to persuade the king to change his mind. Here is Su Dai’s speech:

When I was leaving my country crossing the Yi River (in the present-day Yi County, Hebei province), I saw a clam lying open, enjoying the sunshine on the bank. Out of the blue, a sandpiper flew down and tried to snatch a morsel to eat between its shells. The clam promptly slammed its shells shut, locking the sandpiper’s beak in between. The sandpiper tried to wriggle out of the situation, saying, ‘If it doesn’t rain today and it doesn’t rain tomorrow, there will be a dead clam on the river bank.’ The clam retorted, ‘If I don’t let you go today and nor do I tomorrow, there will be a dead sandpiper on the river bank.’ While they grappled in a dead lock, a fisherman passed by and picked both up with very little effort. Now, if your majesty launched an attack on Yan, Yan would certainly try to resist your invasion. And the fight between the two countries would make both weak and then the State of Qin would be acting as that ‘fisherman’. I urge your majesty to reconsider your plan.

The king of Zhao got the message from Su’s story and called off the military campaign.

As a cautionary tale, this parable has been favoured by Chinese people for two millennia and has often been made into 2D or 3D images to educate the young.

Read Dr Yibin Ni‘s research blog here regarding how this important pictorial motif was rediscovered from previous research papers and museum catalogues that only took it as genre painting.

The seventh day of the seventh month of the traditional Chinese year is the Chinese ‘Valentine’s Day’, Qixi Festival (七夕节). The custom can be traced back to an ancient story about a weaver girl and a cowherd:

Once upon a time, one of the daughters of the Lord of the Heaven lived on the east side of the Milky Way and she worked by the loom day in and day out, weaving fabrics as light as cloud for fairies, thus known as the ‘Weaving Maiden (织女 zhi nv)’. Later, her father allowed her to be married to the ‘Herd Boy (牛郎 niu lang)’ living across the Milky Way. But her father got angry with her because he thought she neglected her weaving duty after the marriage and summoned her back to the east side of the Milky Way, allowing her to reunite with her husband only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month of the traditional Chinese year. In order to help the maiden to reach the other side of the Milky Way, flocks of magpies would have an annual gathering on that day to form a bridge.

In the heart of the Chinese people, the story of the Weaving Maiden and Herd Boy has epitomised as a symbol for lovers separated by various kinds of obstacles and their longing of reunion.

More discussion on this topic is available in Dr Yibin Ni’s blog here.

When Prefect Mao Bao 毛宝 was stationed in the city of Wuchang 武昌, Hebei province, during the Jin dynasty (晋 265-420), there was a story about a white tortoise who repays its benefactor by saving his life.

One day, one of Mao Bao’s soldiers went to market for groceries and returned to the camp with an extra white tortoise. The tortoise was about four or five inches long and still young and vulnerable. So the soldier took the responsibility to feed it. When the tortoise grew to be too large to be living in a tub, the soldier set it free to the Yangtze River. Later, the army that the soldier belonged to was defeated in a battle. In despair, the soldier put on his full armour and threw himself into the river with his cleaver in the hand. Curiously, he found himself landed on a rock unhurt. To his amazement, it was none other than the very white-backed tortoise he had raised! Now it turned out to be a giant fellow, 6 to 7 feet long. The tortoise carried the solider to the east shore and he survived the enemy’s slaughter.

image identification and literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

Another story relating to ‘Repaying Gratitude’:

The dream by the Qiantang river

The Chinese character for ‘monkey’ is 猴 hou and it puns on the word for ‘marquis’ in Chinese 侯 hou. The expression ‘mashang 马上’ in Chinese is ambiguous in that it can mean, literally, ‘on a/the horse’, or it can mean, idiomatically, ‘right away’. Therefore, an image of a monkey on the back of a horse can be used, auspiciously, to convey the message ‘May you be bestowed the title of a marquis presently’.

Related Pun Pictures:

May you be created a peer and earn a handsome official income 爵禄封侯

May you have an imminent promotion 封侯

Li Yuan 李渊 (566-635 CE) excelled at horse-riding, archery, and calligraphy as a young man. He was to be the future founder (reigned 618-626 CE) of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Miss Dou was exceptionally smart and her father Dou Yi 窦毅, the governor of Dingzhou, was very particular about the quality of his future son-in-law. The family decided to erect a screen with two peacocks painted on it and announced whoever could shoot two arrows on each of the peacock’s eye would be qualified to win Miss Dou’s hand. Dozens of young men entered for the competition but left with disappointment because of failure in achieving the full score. Li Yuan as a later comer managed to hit the eye of each peacock with the two arrows and thus captured Miss Dou’s hand.

Father’s Day was set up to honour fatherhood and secure paternal bonds. One very potent motif in the repertoire of traditional Chinese pictorial culture in this regard is the image of a magnificent brawny dragon facing a smaller young dragon in the background of cloud and waves. It symbolises the passing of knowledge and experience from one generation to another, which shows how the society and dominant ideology treasure the paternal advice.

The earliest pictograph of the character 鹿 lu for ‘deer’ is found on a tortoise plastron burnt to crack for divination. Though it is by no means anatomically accurate, the pictograph exhibits the most clearly recognisable characteristics of the animal. It vividly imitates the four legs, slender head, lean body, and prominent antlers. Different scripts of the same word show how the antlers and legs have been evolving to the modern-day character.

The Piya (埤雅), a Chinese dictionary compiled by the Song-Dynasty scholar Lu Dian (陆佃, 1042-1102) with a preface dated 1125 contains a quotation which says ‘The ancients regarded deer as divine animals’. They were reputed to be able to live for a very long time and, hence, like cranes and tortoises, they are symbols of longevity. Deer usually appears as a companion of the Star God of Longevity (寿星, shouxing), who is an old man with a long white beard and a bulging forehead. For this reason, their velvet antlers are a highly valued ingredient in many preparations of traditional Chinese medicine, and are reported to have the power to prolong life, aid virility and alleviate various ailments.

Deer came to represent wealth because the Chinese word 鹿 lu for ‘deer’ is a homophone of 禄 lu for ‘official income’ or ‘emolument’. A blue and white dish painted with a deer bears a four-character inscription which says ‘禄在其中 (Here is your official emoluments)’, explicitly link the deer to emoluments. A gift of an image showing a servant presenting a deer on a tray is a way of wishing the recipient advancement in officialdom and a rise in his pay.

Related Puns and Symbols:

May you have an ample official income 百禄

May you be created a peer and earn a handsome official income 爵禄封侯

Gourd 葫芦

Bo Yi (or Boyi, 伯夷) and Shu Qi (or Shuqi, 叔齐) were sons of the ruler of Guzhu (孤竹), a vassal state of the Shang dynasty (商朝, 16th-11th cent. BCE). As the king was getting old, he wanted Shu Qi, his youngest son, to inherit his throne. However, when the father died, Shu Qi asked Bo Yi to take over the throne because he thought Bo Yi was the eldest brother and rightly deserved the position. Bo Yi declined the offer, saying that their father’s wishes should not be altered and then he left the country. Shu Qi followed and left the country, too. With their absence, another brother of theirs was enthroned.

While wandering along the coast of the North Sea, the two brothers heard that another vassal of Shang, the Zhou state, was an ideal place for a peaceful and quiet retired life and they set off to go there. When they arrived, the old ruler, Count of the Zhou had just passed away and his son enthroned himself as King Wu (武王) and posthumously gave his father the title of King Wen (文王). King Wu believed that he was the next person to have the mandate from Heaven to rule the Shang territories, instead of just being the Count of Zhou under the Shang.

With the veteran strategist the Grand Duke Jiang Ziya (姜子牙, or Jiang Taigong 姜太公), King Wu was launching a military campaign to overthrow the Shang house, when the two brothers appeared in the middle of the road. They tried to stop King Wu’s army and admonished him, ‘Can it be called observing filial piety when one launches a military campaign before one has properly buried one’s diseased father? Can it be called a gentleman’s proper behaviour when a subject is to assassinate his lord?’ King Wu’s entourage then tried to kill the two but Grand Duke Jiang stopped them, saying, ‘They are righteous people.’ Then Mr Jiang helped the two move out of the way and the army marched on.

The story scene depicted on the famille verte Kangxi vase in the previous Jie Rui Tang Collection was first unveiled by Dr Yibin Ni. He has since published two more articles discussing the figural composition in such theme and Jiang Ziya’s riding painted on the antique porcelain vases.

References:

  1. 倪亦斌:《武王子牙举旗伐商 伯夷叔齐叩马阻兵》,《读者欣赏》,兰州:读者出版传媒股份有限公司,2016-07,60-65 页
  2. Jeffrey P. Stamen and Cynthia Volk with Yibin Ni (2017), A Culture Revealed: Kangxi-Era Chinese Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection 文采卓然:潔蕊堂藏康熙盛世瓷, Jieruitang Publishing, Bruges, pp. 22-25.

According to the oldest dictionary in China, Shuowen jiezi 说文解字 (Explanations of Simple Graphs and Analyses of Composite Graphs), the earliest version of the character for ‘crane’ is a composite graph consisting of a pictograph for a bird, the present-day character niao 鸟, at the right, with feet and a feathered tail, along with a sound element at the left indicating how the character should be pronounced at that time.

With the exception of the magical bird fenghuang (凤凰, phoenix), roughly translated into English as ‘phoenix’, the red-crowned white crane is the most auspicious of all birds in China and a widely revered creature in popular religion, mythology and among literati.

In the chapter entitled ‘Discourse on Forests’ 说林训 of The Huainanzi 淮南子 (The Discourses of the Huainan Masters), a book containing some debates held in the court of Prince of Huainan (179 – 122BCE) before 139 BCE, the crane’s life is said to be ‘up to 1,000 years, during which it can fly freely to its heart’s content.’ As one of the most common symbols of longevity in China, the bird is often depicted in the company of other symbols of great age, such as the shou 寿 character, the peach 桃, the pine tree 松, the tortoise 龟, the lingzhi fungus 灵芝, garden rock 寿石, the emblem of the Eight Daoist Immortals 暗八仙, or the Longevity God of the South Pole 南极仙翁, to enhance their potency. The high-soaring crane often serves as the mount of immortals and fairies and is also supposed to lift those mortals who have just attained immortality up to heaven. Naturally, formal Daoists’ gowns bear flying cranes as a decorative motif and the combination of cranes and the Eight Trigrams known in Chinese as bagua 八卦 often adorn Daoist ceremonial utensils.

The crane’s qualities of sacredness and gentlemanliness acquired their ultimate recognition when, during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 – 1911), the most senior grade of imperial civil servants – the highest-flying, oldest, wisest, and most dutiful ‘sons’ of their imperial ‘father’, the emperor – wore a white crane rank badge or mandarin square in front of their chest.

Artists often confine the crane within a circle since the roundness indicates ‘perfection’, resulting in a frequently encountered ‘crane medallion’ design, known in Chinese as ‘tuanhe wen 团鹤纹’.

Lack of knowledge in a specific culture would lead to a slip of putting the boot on the wrong leg, as is the case of identifying the longevity icon crane, in the context of symbols of the similar kind such as peaches and the lingzhi fungi, as a ‘stylized pelican’, which very rarely features in Chinese pictorial tradition.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

When swastika is combined with the Chinese character shou 寿 (meaning long life) and the image of the bat, whose pronunciation puns on the Chinese word fu 福 for ‘luck’ or ‘good fortune’, the composition is used to express good wishes of the highest order on the receiver’s life span and good fortune, such as ‘May you have inexhaustible good fortune and longevity (万福万寿)’ or, more commonly, May you enjoy long life and always be blessed by good fortune (福寿万年)’. Art works adorned with this design are apt birthday presents for revered personages up to kings and emperors.

Either the clockwise swastika 卐 (sounding ‘wan’ 万) or the counterclockwise sauwastika 卍 is used interchangeably in Chinese decorative arts as well as in some religious contexts, as can be seen co-occurring on the same vessel displayed here. Roughly speaking, the swastika means ‘the myriad auspicious things in the universe’.

When swastika is combined with the Chinese character shou 寿 (meaning long life) and the image of the bat, whose pronunciation puns on the Chinese word fu 福 for ‘luck’ or ‘good fortune’, the composition is used to express good wishes of the highest order on the receiver’s life span and good fortune, such as ‘May you enjoy long life and always be blessed by good fortune (福寿万年)’ or ‘May you have inexhaustible good fortune and longevity(万福万寿)’. Art works adorned with this design are apt birthday presents for revered personages up to kings and emperors.

The characteristic Chinese longevity symbol, the peach fruit, is often used in this pun rebus design as an alternative or reinforcement of the character shou, with a more naturalistic touch.

This pun rebus picture consists of four essential pictorial elements: bird, deer, bee, and monkey. The word ‘que 雀’ for ‘small bird’ in Chinese puns on the word ‘jue 爵’ for ‘high official rank’ or ‘peerage’. The word ‘lu 鹿’ for ‘deer’ shares the same sound with ‘lu 禄’ for ‘emolument’ or ‘salary’. The word ‘feng 蜂’ for ‘bee’, is a pun on ‘feng 封’ for the verb ‘to be granted’ and the word ‘hou 猴’ for ‘monkey’ is a pun on ‘hou 侯’ for ‘marquis’, which represents high ranks in the government in general. Thus, the juxtaposition of the four elements is used to convey the auspicious message of ‘May you be created a peer and earn a handsome official income’.

Curios bearing such motifs have been used as treasured gifts passing among friends and colleagues to lubricate the social machinery.

Related Pun Pictures:

May you get promoted 加官

May you be bestowed the title of a marquis presently 马上封侯

The ancient Chinese would employ a picture of a monkey reaching for a bee hive to wish their boss an imminent promotion. The word for bees in Chinese is ‘feng 蜂’ and the word for monkeys is ‘hou 猴’. When ‘feng’ and ‘hou’ are put together, they can form the phrase 封侯 which means ‘be bestowed a rank of nobility’ in Chinese. Thus, such a rustic image can adorn bric-à-brac as gifts to please the receiver and lubricate human relationship.

Related Pun Pictures:

May you be created a peer and earn a handsome official income 爵禄封侯

May you be bestowed the title of a marquis presently 马上封侯

Interesting Blog:

How do you tell a sun from a moon in porcelain painting

When the old duke of Jin (晋) passed away, his heir was still in the cradle. It was with the powerful minister Zhao Dun (赵盾)’s support that he succeeded in ascending the throne. Unfortunately, the young duke, who was posthumously given the title Duke Ling of Jin, Jìn Líng Gōng (晋灵公, ? – 607 BCE), became increasingly the opposite of an ideal ruler. When the righteous Zhao Dun tried to alter the young duke’s misbehaviours by repeated remonstrances, he aroused resentment in the duke’s heart, who subsequently made several attempts on his life.

Once he made the excuse to invite Zhao to drink with him while soldiers were gathered to ambush him. Zhao’s retainer Timi Ming (提弥明) realised the plot and rushed to the table to rescue his master. When Zhao was supported to leave the place, the duke sent his immense dog to attack him. Timi was a valiant fighter and he smote the brute and put an end to it.

This scene served as a classic admonishing example for statesmen and rulers alike.

Read related article How a massacre in ancient China influenced European literature, painting and theatre in Blogs section.

The young duke of the State of Jin (晋) who was posthumously given the title Duke Ling of Jin, Jìn Líng Gōng (晋灵公, ? – 607 BCE), has been known as a ‘ruler who does not deserve his title (bu jun 不君)’. His despotic behaviour was enumerated in the records by historiographers. For example, he levied heavy taxes to build more fancy palaces; he had the chef killed only because he didn’t cook his bear paws soft enough; and, when he was bored with shooting birds and animals in his ever-expanding parks, he whimsically indulged in shooting his ministers and pedestrians with catapult slingshots from his palatial terrace and enjoyed watching the victims suffering from the hazard and ducking the pellets.

 

Read related articleHow a massacre in ancient China influenced European literature, painting and theatre in Blogs section.

Dragon is an imaginary creature from ancient China which was believed to be agile, powerful and authoritative, and thus is a symbol of imperial status in Chinese culture.

 

Related motif: Phoenix

Zhao Bian (赵抃, 1008-84) was held in high esteem all his life and posthumously because of his incorruptibility and sound statesmanship during his entire career. His prize possessions were legendarily well-known: a qin zither and two pets, a crane and a tortoise. They were inseparable from him wherever he was posted.

Some time during the years between 1064 and 1068, Zhao Bian was nominated as governor of Chengdu, which was a prosperous town contaminated by extravagant upper echelons. Zhao went there alone with his musical instrument and two pets without an entourage. In time, his good leadership made a name for himself and people of neighbouring areas moved to central Sichuan to seek better opportunities.

Once he had an audience with the emperor in court, the emperor asked Zhao, ‘Did you really go to Sichuan alone with only a qin zither and a crane as they say?’ Zhao modestly kowtowed to thank the emperor for his recognition.

Up till today, the saying ‘one qin zither and one crane (一琴一鹤)’ has been used to praise a virtuous official.

Read Dr Yibin Ni’s research article here for more interesting discussion.

When Bing Ji (丙吉 d. 55 BCE) was a chancellor in the Han court, once he encountered the aftermath of a gang fight in the street. Bing Ji passed them without batting an eyelid. Further ahead, a buffalo passed and it looked out of breath. Bing Ji had its owner stopped and inquired about the buffalo’s heavy panting. Bing Ji’s aide thought Bing Ji paid no attention to the severe casualties but showed unwarranted interest in a panting buffalo. Bing Ji explained, ‘Curtailing gang fights are the police commissioner’s responsibility, not a chancellor’s. It is only spring now and the sun is quite mild but the buffalo was heavily panting. I wondered if there was something wrong with the climate that harmed the animal.’

See more research work regarding this story scene in the blog here.

Other governors’ stories:

Chen Ping Dividing Meat 陈平分肉

Seasoning a Stew with Sour Prunes 调梅和羹

Night Revel of the Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty 隋炀帝夜游西苑

Pheasant is one of the most popular birds painted in traditional Chinese art, besides phoenix, crane and rooster. Due to its characteristic long-tail, pheasant is often used in pun rebus pictures, as ‘chang 长’ and ‘zhi 雉’ in this bird’s Chinese name ‘chang wei zhi 长尾雉’ pun on the other Chinese words ‘chang 长’ and ‘zhi 治’, meaning to regulate for a long time. Artworks containing this motif express the wish to the receiver to govern a country or a state for a long time.

Pheasant is often presented in combination with shou shi (寿石, rocks symbolising for longevity), peony or quail to serve their symbolic or pun purposes.

 

Related Pun Rebus:

May the country enjoy peace and good order permanently 长治久安

Related Symbolic Pictures:

What does a daily life scene of cooking have to do with politics?

Pun Design: Apples + Quails + Lychee

Punning Details:

The Chinese character ‘ping 苹’ in ‘ping guo 苹果’ for ‘apple’ can make a pun on ‘ping 平’ for ‘peace’. The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ puns on ‘an 安’, another Chinese word for ‘peace’. The word ‘li 荔’ in ‘li zhi 荔枝’ for ‘lychee’ sounds the same as ‘li 利’ for ‘profit’. Thus, this seemingly random juxtaposition of lychee, quails, and apples was used by the prominent 20th-century Chinese painter Qi Baishi (齐白石, 1864 – 1957) to convey a good wish for the recipient of the painting to enjoy both wealth and peace.

 

画面要素: 苹果 + 鹌鹑 + 荔枝

谐音详情: ‘苹果’ 中 ‘苹’ 的谐音 ‘平’, ‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 与 ‘安’ 谐音, ‘荔枝’ 中 ‘荔’ 与 ‘利’ 谐音。

 

Related Pun Rebus:

May you do well in exams and enjoy wealth and prestige 功名富贵

Phoenix, as an imaginary creature in Chinese culture, has been esteemed as the queen of all kinds of birds. When coupled with the image of dragon in Chinese artworks, it symbolises royal power. Later on, the use of dragon and phoenix has been extended to refer husband-and-wife, or boy-and-girl.

Pun Design: Quails + Chrysanthemum

Punning Details:

The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. The word ‘ju 菊’ in ‘ju hua 菊花’ for ‘chrysanthemum’ puns on the word ‘ju 居’ for ‘to live’. Thus, the composition forms a pictorial pun that conveys the auspicious message of ‘May you live in peace and leisure’.

 

画面要素:鹌鹑 + 菊花

谐音详情:‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 与 ‘安’ 谐音, ‘菊花’ 中 ‘菊’ 与 ‘居’ 谐音

 

Related Pun Pictures:

May you enjoy peace and happiness 安喜

May the country be in peace and order forever 久安长治

Gourd (葫芦, hu lu) in Chinese is pronounced similar to ‘fu (福, fortune)’ and ‘lu (禄, wealth)’, therefore its image is often used as a pun picture referring fortune and wealth. In order to emphasise the good wish expressed by the image, traditionally the gourd is often presented in combination with bat 蝠, whose pronunciation in Chinese is also fu.

Young Chen Ping (陈平, ?–178 BCE), later a minister of Western Han dynasty, as being an exemplar of fairness in his everyday work. According to Sima Qian’s (司马迁, 145BCE – ?) famous work Historical Records – Prime Minister Chen’s Family (史记 – 陈丞相世家 ), one day, Chen Ping’s village held a ceremony to offer sacrifice to the Earth God. He was entrusted as the arbitrator to divide the meat offerings among attending villagers after the ceremony. As he divided the meat offerings in very even quantities, a village elder remarked that Chen was very impartial, to which he replied ‘Should I one day take rule of the land, I would rule it as impartially as I split the meat offerings.’

The story scene depicted in the centre of the Kangxi plate in the collection of the British Museum was first unveiled by Dr Yibin Ni. His article with historical pictorial and literary evidence is published here.

Wei Jie (卫玠, 286-312) was admired as a handsome “jade man’ when he appeared in his signature goat-drawn carriage in town. Wei Jie shone like a piece of gleaming diamond whichever company he was in.

On 17th century porcelain, the goat-drawn carriage and the fruit-throwing antics to Pan An (潘安, 247-300), another famous and adorable man, from respective historical sources were often combined to form one spectacular story scene. Read related blog here.

References:

  1. 倪亦斌:《掷果盈车数潘安, 陈年旧事女看男》,《艺术世界》, 上海: 上海文艺出版社,2006-10, pp.102-103.
  2. 倪亦斌:《掷果盈车数潘安, 陈年旧事女看男》,《看图说瓷》, 北京: 中华书局, 2008, pp. 173-176.

The second half of the third century and the beginning of the fourth century saw a couple of most handsome men in the history of China. For example, Pan An 潘安 (247-300) was exceptionally cute and adorable when he was an adolescent. Women who spotted him in the street would circle around him and throw fruits into his chariot as a fanatic gesture of affection and admiration. He usually returned home with a harvest.

Further interesting discussion: How Chinese People Reacted to Handsome Men in Ancient Times

Another famous handsome figure in ancient China:

Wei Jie 卫玠

References:

  1. 倪亦斌:《掷果盈车数潘安, 陈年旧事女看男》,《艺术世界》, 上海: 上海文艺出版社,2006-10, pp.102-103.
  2. 倪亦斌: 《掷果盈车数潘安,陈年旧事女看男》,《看图说瓷》, 北京: 中华书局, 2008, pp. 173-176.

Jin yu 金鱼 (goldfish) in Chinese is pronounced the same as the other Chinese words ‘jin 金’, literally meaning ‘gold’, and ‘yu 玉’ meaning ‘jade’. Therefore, the goldfish is often used as a basic motif in Chinese pun rebus pictures referring to wealth.

Related Motif:

Fish

Related Pun Pictures:

May your household be piled high with gold and jade 金玉满堂

May you remain pure, clean, and incorruptible 清白廉洁

Interesting Blog:

More than naturalistic motifs: recognition of Chinese pun rebus pictures

The accumulation of family wealth in traditional China was lauded as jin yu man tang 金玉满堂 – a household is piled high with gold and jade. This saying was visually expressed with a design of goldfish in a pond; jin yu 金鱼 (goldfish) makes a pun on jin 金 (gold) and yu 玉 (jade), while the state of a pond (tang 塘) being filled with fish (man tang 满塘) sounds the same as mang tang 满堂 ‘a hall being filled with something.’

Other auspicious wishes:

May the whole universe prosper in eternal spring 六合同春

May you do well in exams and enjoy wealth and prestige 功名富贵

The Chinese name for rooster or chicken is ji 鸡, which is a pun on ji 吉 ‘good fortune’. ‘Da’ is the Chinese adjective for ‘big’ and ‘da ji‘ literally means ‘large rooster’ but puns on ‘great luck’.

Thus, these paintings convey the message ‘May you enjoy imminent good fortune’. It can be used on many social occasions where people wish the receiver to enjoy good fortune.

 

Related Pun Pictures:

May everything fare fabulously in your family 室上大吉

May you be blessed by good luck in all you do 百吉

Related motif: Rooster 公鸡

One of the most commonly used motifs that depicts household fowls. It has also been frequently used in pun rebuses for the meaning of ‘good fortune’ or ‘good wishes’, as its Chinese pronunciation is ji 鸡, the same as ji 吉, which means good fortune. See more below.

 

Related Pun Rebus Pictures:

May everything fare fabulously in your family shi 室上大吉 

May you enjoy imminent good fortune 大吉

 

Just like the English word ‘bat’ can mean ‘a kind of animal’ in one context and ‘a club for playing tennis’ in another, so can pictures of animals and flowers in a pictorial design called ‘pun rebus’ in Chinese art. For example, the Chinese name for deer is lu 鹿, which is a pun on lu 禄 ‘emolument’ or ‘official income’. A pun rebus design known as bai lu 百禄 adorns a Ming wucai (five-coloured) jar and Qing fencai (famille rose) jars here. The design consists of, ideally, one hundred deer, and conveys the message ‘May you have an ample official income’! Not a bad idea as a present for a friend or relative who works in civil service.

Related Pun Pictures:

May you have an imminent promotion 封侯

May you be created a peer and earn a handsome official income 爵禄封侯