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Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

European descriptions of porcelain paintings that have story scenes tend to describe ‘figures and surroundings’, rather than identifying them. Thus, a large part of those beautiful stories intended by pot painters was lost in the description. Here are some examples…

In Chinese porcelain painting, it can be tricky to interpret a round disc in the sky as a sun or a moon. Knowledge of Chinese culture and pun rebuses are the keys to explain the meanings of the motifs and scenes correctly. Here are some examples…

Sima Guang (司马光, 1019-1086) is an eminent scholar and politician during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) in China. His greatest achievement in life is compiling a chronicle of 1,362 years’ history of China from 403 BCE to 959 CE. The book is entitled Zizhi Tongjian (资治通鉴), or ‘Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance’. In his biography in the official History of the Song (dynasty) (宋史), there is an anecdote which exemplifies young Sima Guang’s courageous spirit and quick wit of lateral thinking.

One day, Sima Guang was playing with a group of children in the garden, when one of his playmates climbed up a rock formation and slipped into a gigantic water vat. Shocked by the horrendous sight of a boy disappearing under the water, the group fled in fright. Only Sima Guang remained on the spot and managed to break a hole on the vat with a piece of rock. The water rushed out and the boy survived. Soon afterwards, his heroic deed became inspiration for artists who created corresponding paintings around the capital city (Chapter 336, The History of Song). This scene is known as ‘Shiba-Onko’ in Japan and, as ‘Hob-in-the-Well’ in Europe after it was copied by kilns in Chelsea, England and Meissen, Germany.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

Wang Xiang (王祥 185-269) served as the Grand Protector (taibao 太保) in the Western Jin court (西晋 265-316 CE) and, as a significant politician, has his biography in the Book of Jin (jinshu 晋书), an official historical text covering the dynasty’s history. When Wang Xiang was a boy, his mother passed away. His stepmother was not kind to him, often speaking ill of him before his father. One bitterly cold wintry day, his stepmother had a craving for the carp. Wang Xiang went to the frozen lake, took his clothes off, and lay on the icy surface trying to melt the ice in order to catch some fish. Suddenly, the ice cracked and out jumped two carp, which Wang Xiang could take back to please his parents. It was Wang’s devout filial piety that moved the dragon king residing in the lake, who sent him the carp as a reward.

Research on this story scene:

Is this man really dancing with carp: a revelation of a traditional Chinese story on filial piety

Related Pun Rebus:

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

The action of ‘pointing to the sun’ is termed in Chinese as ‘指日 zhi ri’, which sounds and looks exactly the same as (both homophone and homograph of) the phrase ‘指日 zhi ri’ meaning ‘in a few days’ time’. The state of ‘something rising high up’ is ‘高升 gao sheng’ in Chinese, which may be metaphorically used to mean ‘getting a promotion’. Thus, the image of a person pointing to the sun high up in the sky visually cues the congratulatory saying ‘zhi ri gao sheng 指日高升 – May your chance of promotion be just round the corner’.

Interesting reading:

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

Related Pun Pictures:

May you have repeated promotion 官上加官

May you have an imminent promotion 封侯