Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

Congratulations on art historian Dr Yibin Ni’s new research into a rare story scene in Chinese pictorial art, which may have puzzled contemporary museum curators and porcelain collectors. Dr Ni has traced the art historical context in which this rare pictorial scene of The Wife of the Bow Maker in the State of Jin was created and provided us with historical evidence to identify and illuminate its unique composition. His work on this previously mysterious story scene has undoubtedly contributed to the treasure trove of Chinese iconography.

Xiahou Dun, a heroic soldier in ancient China, was famous for his one-eyed appearance. Let’s appreciate how Dr Yibin Ni analyses the artistic presentation of this character on Chinese antique porcelain, woodblock print and other art forms, in association with comparable figures in Western culture.

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.

This is a story of a brave woman who boldly exercised her rhetorical competence, managed to correct the erring ruler and saved her husband from execution. The story of The Wife of the Bow Maker in the State of Jin (晋弓工妻) is recorded in Chapter 6 Convincing and Perceptive (辩通传), Biographies of Exemplary Women (列女传 Lienv zhuan), the earliest extant book for moral education of women in China.

Duke Ping of Jin (晋平公, r. 557-532 BCE) was the sovereign of the State of Jin. Once he ordered a bow to be made for his personal use and the job took three years to finish. The duke happily received the new bow and tried it out with great expectation. Wooden strips for writing at that time were used as the testing target. The duke was sorely dismayed when the arrow did not pierce even one layer of the wooden strips. The duke wanted to have the bow maker executed for his utter incompetence. As soon as the bow maker’s wife heard about the news, she rushed to the palace. In front of the duke, the bow maker’s wife demonstrated her brilliant mastery of reasoning skills. First, she quoted famous benevolent anecdotes practised by past admirable rulers. Second, she enumerated all the best materials her husband had managed to select over a very long time in order to make this finest bow. Third, she pointed out that it is absolutely absurd to blame the bow for the previous ineffective shooting since it was none other than the result of the duke’s misuse of the bow. She then went on teaching the duke the right way of holding the bow and drawing the string and the right moment to release the arrow. The duke followed her advice. This time, the arrow hit the target and went right through seven layers of wooden strips! The reputation of the bow maker was instantly restored and the duke rewarded him 60 taels of gold.

The story scene depicted in the middle of the Kangxi plate currently collected by V&A Museum was first unveiled by Dr Yibin Ni. His article with historical evidence is published here.

The main figure in the scene is a dignitary, often gripping a hu (笏) tablet in his hands, which an official uses to take notes when he has audience with the emperor in court. He is usually sheltered by page boys erecting some fans or a parasol or guarded by a soldier holding a weapon with an iron melon on the top. Facing the dignitary is an attendant presenting a vase containing three miniature ji (戟) halberds to him. Sometimes there is a tray underneath the vase. The Chinese character for ‘vase’ is 瓶 ping, which is a pun on 平 ping for ‘unexpectedly’ or ‘surprisingly’. The character for the halberd is 戟 ji, which puns on 级 ji for ‘grade or rank’ and three halberds stand for ‘three ranks’. Put together, the design is used to express the message “May you have three successive promotions unexpectedly” (平升三级 ping sheng san ji).

Related Pun Pictures:

May you have three promotions continuously! 连升三级

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

A variation of 平升三级 ping sheng san ji (May you have three successive promotions unexpectedly) is 连升三级 lian sheng san ji. The design has kept the old element of three ji halberds but added a new motif, the lotus flower. The character for the halberd is 戟 ji, which puns on 级 ji for ‘official grade or rank’ and three halberds stand for ‘three official ranks’. The character for the lotus is 莲 lian, which sounds the same as the word 连 lian for ‘continuously’. Thus, this combination of objects is used to express the good wish ‘May you have three promotions continuously!’

Related Pun Picture:

May you have an imminent promotion 封侯

May you have repeated promotions 官上加官

May your chance of promotion be just round the corner 指日高升

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.

Lv Bu (吕布 Lü Bu, died 199 CE) is known as an almost unchallenged fighter in the period of the Three Kingdoms (三国, 220-280 CE) in Chinese history. The scene on the vase depicts a crucial moment when Lv Bu’s exceptional archery stunt astounded all the generals and soldiers present and then successfully quelled an imminent collision between two opposing camps.

This vignette is found in the Records of the Three Kingdoms, the most authoritative source text for that period, composed by Chen Shou (陈寿) in the third century. General Ji Ling (纪灵) led thirty thousand soldiers to launch an attack on Liu Bei (刘备), one of the heads of the Three Kingdoms, and Liu asked Lv Bu for help. Lv Bu decided to lend Liu a hand in spite of the objection from his lieutenants. Lv Bu explained to them that, if Liu Bei’s army collapsed, then his army would be Ji Ling’s next target. Lv Bu went to see Ji Ling with one thousand soldiers and held a drinking party inviting Liu Bei’s men as guests. After a round of clinking of glasses, Lv Bu said to Ji Ling, ‘Liu Bei is to me like a brother. I’ve come to rescue him. I don’t like conflicts but love to resolve disputes between people.’ Then, Lv Bu asked to have a ji (戟) halberd erect at the entrance of the camp enclosure and, raising his favourite bow up in the air, he inspected the crowd around him and announced, ‘Watch me shoot the short blade on the halberd. If my arrow hits it in one shot, both parties must call it a truce and leave. If it doesn’t, you may stay and fight.’ Sure enough, Lv Bu’s arrow hit where it was meant to hit and, flabbergasted, the crowd burst into a roar ‘General, you possess Heaven’s might!’ The next day saw revels participated by all three forces and a happy departure.

image identification and story scene description by Dr Yibin Ni 

Xiahou Dun (夏侯惇, died 13 June 220) was one of Cao Cao’s (曹操, 155-220) most valued generals in the late Eastern Han dynasty (东汉, 25-220) of China. Xiahou showed his strong temperament even when he was in his early teens. Once his mentor was insulted, and he went straight to the insulter and killed him. During the 190s in a military campaign against the famous fighter Lv Bu (Lü Bu 吕布, died 199), an arrow hit one of Xiahou’s eyeballs. He showed his valour by yanking the arrow out of his eye socket and ate his own eyeball as an act of filial piety because of the cherished belief that any part of the body was a gift from parents and should not be thrown away. From then on, Xiahou was known as ‘One-eyed Xiahou’.

Read Dr Yibin Ni’s blog for more analysis of the artistic presentations of Xiahou Dun on Chinese antique porcelain, woodblock print and other art forms, in association with comparable figures in Western culture.

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.

image identification and story scene description by Dr Yibin Ni 

Read more in Dr Ni’ research article ‘How a massacre in ancient China influenced European literature, painting and theatre’.