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Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

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.

This blog is modified from Dr Yibin Ni’s research work first published on Antiques and Fine Art Magazine. The purpose is to appreciate how Chinese porcelain painters from ancient times passed on classical stories and illustrated traditional morals through their craftworks.

Have you ever seen such an image and wondered why a young man is holding a shoe and kneeling down in front of an old man? Is there any historical event relating to the shoe and such scene? Read on to see how Dr Yibin Ni deciphers the figures and stories for you.

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.

‘Sima Xiangru Inscribing on the Bridge Gateway (相如题桥)’ was a popular theme in theatre from at least the Song (960-1279) through to the Qing (1644-1911) dynasty. Sima Xiangru (司马相如) was a Western Han (202 BCE – 8 CE) scholar unsuccessful in making a career in civil services. However, Wang Ji, the magistrate of Linqiong county, was impressed by his dazzling talents and invited him to live in his house as a guest.

One day, a rich local businessman, Zhuo Wangsun (卓王孙), held a house party for Wang and Sima, at which Sima played the qin zither. Zhuo’s recently-widowed daughter, Wenjun (文君), heard the music and was fascinated by Sima’s performance as well as his genteel manner and bearing. The two fell in love and she eloped with him. Mortified, Zhuo Wangsun refused to support the couple and the poverty-stricken lovers had to earn their living by running a wine-shop by the roadside.

One autumn day, encouraged by his wife, Sima made up his mind to leave home to seek his fortune in the capital, Chang’an. Wenjun went to see him off at the Bridge of ‘Ascending to the Realm of Immortals’ (昇仙桥) on the outskirts. When he made farewell to his wife, Sima vowed that he would not cross the bridge again unless he did so riding in a grand carriage drawn by four horses.

Sure enough, his ambition was realised in a few years’ time and he enjoyed a triumphant home-coming ceremony given by the local officials. The anecdote has encouraged generations of young men leaving hometown to seek fortunes in the big world!

Read more about the story in Dr Yibin Ni‘s blog here.

After Zhang Liang (张良, d. 189 BCE) failed to assassinate the first emperor of China, he changed his name and went into hiding. One day, he ran into Lord Yellowstone (黄石公), a guru strategist by the Yi Bridge (圯桥). The old man could see Zhang’s great potential but he wanted to put him through a series of tests before taking him as his pupil.

Lord Yellowstone deliberately dropped his shoe down the embankment and asked Zhang to fetch it and put it back onto his foot. Stomaching his resentment, Zhang meekly did what he was told to do. And then, Lord Yellowstone twice made early-morning appointments with him but cancelled them because Zhang arrived later than he did. The third time Zhang arrived at midnight way ahead of the designated time and his humility and perseverance impressed the old man, who then passed on to him the ancient wisdoms and art of war. Later, Zhang helped the founder of the Han dynasty, Liu Bang (刘邦, d. 195 BCE), with the invincible strategies and became one of Liu’s three top lieutenants.

images on porcelain: first deciphered by Yibin Ni

More stories about Zhang Liang:

Why is the scene of a man holding a shoe popular in Chinese antique artworks?