Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

The story scene comes from a marvel play Legend of the Jade Hairpin, which is not to be confused with the scene in Romance of the Western Chamber. Read the following article to find out details of the story and how this figural scene is depicted.

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.

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.

A literati theme with the image of a scholar riding in a snowscape with branches of plum blossoms in the vicinity has been very popular in traditional Chinese visual culture and literature. But who is the scholar in the scene? Art historian Dr Yibin Ni hereby unveils the mystery for us.

Pictorial artworks with figural scenes in traditional China often have historical and cultural significance and are not to be mistaken for daily life genre painting. Here is an example and Dr Yibin Ni will explain to you the hidden meaning in the scene of Seasoning the Stew with Sour Prunes.

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.

Have you wondered why the same story scenes were painted differently on Chinese artworks? How was it painted to present women falling in love on Chinese antique porcelains? Read on to see what Dr Yibin Ni has to say with his analysis.

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.

This is an overview by Dr Yibin Ni on how the topic of ‘The Birthday Party of the Queen Mother of the West’ was depicted on Chinese artworks, from woodblock print during Ming dynasty to scroll painting and porcelains in Qing dynasty.

Pun Design

Official Hat + Wine Vessel

Punning Details

The combination of ‘jia 加 putting on’ and ‘guan 冠 hat’ – ‘jia guan 加冠’ is a pun on ‘jia guan 加官’, meaning ‘receiving an official title’. ‘Jue 爵 bronze wine vessel’ puns on ‘jue 爵’ (the same character) for ‘high official rank’. ‘Jin jue 进爵 presenting the jue cup’ puns on ‘jin jue 晋爵’ for ‘getting promotion to higher rank’.

In some compositions, a child wearing a seemingly unfit official cap, which is a ‘guan 冠’, is offering a dignitary a jue cup. Since both ‘guan 冠 cap’ puns on ‘guan 官 official title’ and ‘jue 爵 bronze wine cup’ puns on ‘jue 爵 high official rank’, the image communicates the message of ‘jia guan jin jue 加官晋爵’.


Related Pun Pictures:

May you get promoted 加官

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

Legend of the Jade Hairpin (Yu Zan Ji 玉簪记) is a Ming-dynasty ‘marvel play’ which was the major drama genre of the time. The play, consisting of thirty-three scenes, was written by Gao Lian (高濂 fl. 1573-1581) around 1580 and remained to be a popular classic for the following three hundred years. It is a Shakespearean love story of a young couple who were betrothed at birth, torn apart by war, and unwittingly fell in love with each other at a nunnery.

The scene is a snapshot of Act 19, Consummation of Love after the Revelation of the Girl’s Love Poem. The lovesick young scholar Pan Bizheng 潘必正 accidentally discovered the love verse from Chen Miaochang 陈妙常, the female protagonist in the play, and she could no longer repress her love for him anymore.

In a coarsely produced version, the horsetail fly whisk, a traditional trademark of a Daoist nun, is missing from Miaochang’s hand. In more sophisticated versions of the same scene, there is an additional figure playing the role of ‘Peeping Tom’, hiding behind a tree or the curtain of the ‘Moon window’. He is Scholar Pan’s page boy, Ange 安哥, and an opportunist. He took the advantage of the situation and threatened the young couple that he would report their tryst if they didn’t address him as ‘Sir Ange’.

Acknowledgement: The story scene depicted on the porcelain ware displayed in this listing was first deciphered by Dr Yibin Ni. His article is published here for your reference.

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 

This is Scene Five of Book Two of the Chinese classic popular drama Romance of the Western Chamber (西厢记 Xixiang ji).

At a family dinner party, Zhang Junrui’s (张君瑞, also called Scholar Zhang 张生) dream of marrying Yingying (莺莺) the love of his life was shattered by Yingying’s mother because he was a nobody with no respectable official’s position.

This drove him to thoughts of suicide. He tried to drown his sorrows in alcohol, and had to be supported by the maid Hongniang (红娘) to return to his own quarters. His desperation moved Hongniang. She suggested that he express his passion through a performance of the qin (琴) zither and she would arrange for Yingying to hear it on their way to their incense-burning ceremony in the evening.

When Yingying was led to pass Scholar Zhang’s quarters, Hongniang coughed to send Zhang a signal, in line with their secret prior arrangement. Zhang started to pour his heart out through the enchanting music that his deft fingers were playing. It did the trick: Yingying’s heart was melting!

image identification and story scene description by Dr Yibin Ni 

Other episodes in the Romance of the Western Chamber:

Scholar Zhang Embarking on His Journey to Sit for Civil-Service Examinations 张生赶考

Consummation of love from Western Chamber 月下佳期

Yingying receiving good news delivered by the pageboy 泥金报捷

Young scholar Zhang Junrui (张君瑞, also called Zhang Sheng 张生) is the male protagonist in the famous ancient Chinese play, Romance of the Western Chamber (西厢记 Xixiang ji, alternative translation is The Story of the Western Wing). He was commonly referred to as Scholar Zhang. The son of a cabinet minister of the court, he suffered the tragedy of losing both parents. This left him with only his sword and his books for solace and entertainment. Thus, he decided to sit for civil-service examinations. In Episode 2 of the play, he set off on horseback to the capital with his pageboy. The scene (in fig. 9 & 11) depicts the moment when they approached the district of Pudong on the west bank of the Yellow River, in the territory of the Hezhong Prefecture (张生至蒲东).

image identification and literature research: by Dr Yibin Ni 

Other episodes in the Romance of the Western Chamber:

Consummation of love from Western Chamber 月下佳期

Yingying Listening to the Qin Zither Playing 莺莺听琴

Yingying receiving good news delivered by the pageboy 泥金报捷

Meng Haoran (孟浩然, c. 690-740) is one of the most renowned poets in Tang dynasty (618-906). He started off pursuing a civil service career and then abandoned it to concentrate on poetry. He was a major influence on other Tang and later poets because of his innovative focus on nature. There is a play attributed to the noted Yuan dynasty playwright and poet, Ma Zhiyuan (马致远, c.1250 – c.1324), entitled ‘(Meng Haoran) Looking for Plum Blossom on a Snowy Day’. In the play, Meng Haoran was characterised as a scholar with incredible integrity, symbolised by his love of plum blossom looking its best during the depths of winter. For hundreds of years, Chinese literati have lauded his life-long self-exile from material pursuits in officialdom and held up his deeds as good examples for scholars.

Read this blog for more interesting discussion on the identity of the scholar figure in similar scenes.


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. 34-35.

Diao Mei He Geng 调梅和羹’ is a metaphor that likens the art of governing a country to the adequate seasoning of a stew with salt and sour prunes. The scene is often made up of a group of women or men surrounding a stove, on which a cauldron of food is being cooked, with an assistant holding a container with sour prunes.

In the Commentary of Zuo (左传 Zuo Zhuan), one of the oldest Chinese history books, written during the 4th century BCE, there is a famous passage in which the right method of preparing a perfectly seasoned stew is linked to the proper way of maintaining a harmonious relationship between the lord and his vassal. The statesman Yan Ying (晏婴 578-500 BCE) says to the Duke Jing of Qi (齐景公 Qi Jinggong, r. 547-490 BCE): ‘The cook blends the ingredients and balances them according to the right taste, adding whatever is lacking and negating whatever is excessive (宰夫和之,齐之以味;济其不及,以泄其过).’

From then on, the phrase 和羹 hegeng, ‘seasoning the stew’, or 调梅 diaomei, ‘seasoning the stew with sour prunes’, or 调鼎 tiaoding, ‘seasoning the food in the cauldron’, has been widely used to refer to the business of ‘governing the country’, or, specifically, ‘serving as the prime minister to the emperor’.

This classic pictorial allusion depicted in the centre of the Kangxi plates in the collections of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art was first unveiled by Dr Yibin Ni. His research article on this topic is available here.

Examples of governors with good reputation:

Chen Ping Dividing Meat 陈平分肉

Bing Ji Inquiring about a Panting Buffalo 丙吉问牛喘

The Boot-Swapping Ceremony for the Departing Governor 民赞清官留旧靴

Evidently, Zhao Kuangyin (赵匡胤 927-976), Emperor Taizu of the Song dynasty (宋太祖), often paid unofficial surprise visits to his courtiers. As a result, his ministers did not dare to change their official attire into casual wear even when they returned home from court. They had to be ready for imperial visits any time and did not want to appear discourteous when the emperor arrived.

As Emperor Taizu’s most entrusted strategist, Zhao Pu (赵普 922-992) was the most important politician in the court of the first two Song emperors, Taizu and Taizong (宋太宗 939-997). Emperor Taizu often consulted him on matters of national security and power consolidation. ‘Emperor Zhao Kuangyin Visiting Grand Chancellor Zhao Pu on a Snowing Evening’ is an epitome of the emperor’s comradeship with his right-hand-man.

One bitterly cold snowy evening, Zhao looked at the blowing snow outside with a sense of relief. He thought that it would be most unlikely that the emperor would come out of his palace in such weather. No sooner had Zhao Pu sat down with a book than he was informed that the emperor was at the gate.

Zhao Pu hurried to the courtyard and knelt down to welcome the sovereign. Double mattresses were laid on the floor of the hall and barbecue grill racks were set to cook meat. When Zhao Pu’s wife came out to serve wine, the emperor addressed her as ‘Sister-in-law’.

During this casual home visit, the emperor told Zhao Pu his grave concern of reunifying China. Sure enough, Zhao Pu came up with effective strategies to subjugate various small kingdoms starting from the south, which was fertile and rich but weak in combat forces. The meeting laid the foundation of the following nineteen-year military campaigns that reunited the Chinese people.

Other stories of emperors from different dynasties:

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

How a massacre in ancient China influenced European literature, painting and theatre

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

Wang Zhaojun (王昭君, c.52 – c.15 BCE) was one of the court ladies in the harem of Emperor Yuan of the Western Han dynasty (汉元帝, 206 BCE – 8 CE). It was not possible for the emperor to meet every one of the three-thousand concubines, so he had a court painter paint their pictures to facilitate his selection process. Every lady tried very hard to win the painter’s favour so that the painter can represent them in a more flattering image. But Lady Wang Zhaojun was confident in her own beauty. She didn’t want to bribe the painter. As a result, the painter didn’t show her beauty in the portrait and the emperor never noticed her.

During that time, some nomadic groups from the western region invaded China quite often, so the emperor wanted to make peace with them by marrying some of his ladies to the chieftains. On one occasion, Lady Wang was chosen. When Lady Wang was unveiled at the court, her beauty stunned everybody present and the emperor was deeply regretted for not knowing her earlier. However, it was too late for the emperor to keep her and he had to let her go.

The journey to the new home was long and arduous so Lady Wang was given a pipa (琵琶), a Chinese musical instrument, to pass time and the pipa became her signature attribute. Because of her marriage with the Xiongnu (匈奴) chieftain, the region remained peaceful for decades. Lady Wang Zhaojun was credited as one of the four most beautiful women in the whole Chinese history.

More interesting reading:

Dr Yibin Ni explains in his blog the provenance of the porcelain bottle in Fig 1.

In Zhuangzi (庄子), an ancient Chinese text from the late Warring States period (476–221 BCE)  and one of the two foundational texts of Daoism, the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母) was mentioned as a deity who ‘obtained the Dao (the Way)’. According to the Scripture of Great Peace (Taiping jing 太平经), a valuable resource for researching early Daoist beliefs and the society at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty (AD25 – AD220), the Queen Mother of the West was an immortal (xian 仙). In the Six Dynasties period (420 – 589), she was adopted into the pantheon of religious Daoism (Daojiao 道教) as the principal female deity in the Supreme Secret Essentials (Wushang miyao 无上秘要), a Daoist encyclopaedia completed in 577.

The scene of the celebration of the Queen Mother’s birthday typically consists of three components: first, a female dignitary seated before a screen, flanked by a couple of court ladies and entourage; a dancer gesticulating with her arms, often on a rug; an all-female orchestra playing various kinds of musical instruments.

Read more of Dr Yibin Ni’s research work on this topic.

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.

With strategic plans to restore the war-torn country back to order, the talented scholar Li Jing (李靖) was paying a visit to the powerful Lord Yang Su (杨素), who enjoyed luxurious ways of living and female company around him. To Li Jing’s disappointment, Lord Yang did not take his plans seriously. However, Red Fly Whisk (红拂女 hongfu nv as nickname, real name 张凌华), an exceptionally beautiful maid who was present at the meeting, immediately fell head over heels for Li Jing, while Li was passionately airing his ambitious views to Lord Yang.

Read more story of Li Jing and Red Fly Whisk with the other hero Zhang Zhongjian (张仲坚, nicknamed the Curly-Bearded Fellow 虬髯客), who left all his possessions to the couple and went overseas to start his new life.

Read Dr Yibin Ni‘s interesting analysis on How to depict the scene of falling-in-love on Chinese porcelain.

Zhang Chang (张敞, ?- 48 BCE) and his wife grew up in the same village. When they were both children, Zhang Chang once threw a pebble at his future wife and, unfortunately, the scratch left a scar on one of her eyebrows. Later, Zhang became a civil servant and learned that the girl he once hit with a pebble was unmarried because of her marred face. He went to propose to her. After they got married, Zhang made a practice of painting his wife’s eyebrows every morning to cover up the scar. When Zhang Chang served as the Mayor of the capital, Emperor Xuan of Han dynasty (汉宣帝, reigned 74-48 BCE) rallied him on the point. He replied, ‘There were more intimate things that a husband would do to his wife in the bedchamber. (闺房之乐, 有甚于画眉者)’ The story remained a famous example of harmonious marriage in imperial China.

literary summary: by Yibin Ni