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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.

Have you ever wondered why images of an old scholarly man riding a buffalo are often depicted on Chinese antiques? What is so special about this man who looks highly respected and followed by yet still sitting on a buffalo’s back? We hereby invite art historian Dr Yibin Ni to solve the mystery…

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.

Ancient literature shows that Laozi (Lao Tzu, 老子) served as the Keeper of the Imperial Archives of the Eastern Zhou court (东周, 770 – 258BCE). He must have greatly benefited from the perk of the job – the easy access to the best stock of classics written on bamboo slips at the time and became so learned that even Confucius (孔子, 551 – 479BCE), the paragon of the Chinese sages, consulted him several times on matters concerning rituals of mourning and funeral and spoke very highly of him.

The legendary meeting between Laozi and Confucius was first pictorially presented during the Eastern Han period (东汉, 25 – 220CE), in which the two sages were usually bowing to each other with the precocious boy prodigy Xiang Tuo (项橐) standing between them. However, this early simple characterisation of the famous meeting was taken over by a new composition of the two literary giants surrounded by their own pupils and servants in late imperial China. One surviving early example attributed to the Yuan painter Shi Gang (史杠, active around 1352) staged the conference among huge jumbles of rocks in an austere landscape.

See images of Laozi on the signature buffalo here and more discussion about pictorial parody of Laozi riding an ox in this blog.

Laozi (Lao Tzu 老子) is a great ancient Chinese thinker, to whom a five-thousand-character book ‘Dao de jing 道德经’, or The Scripture of the Way and Virtue, has been attributed. He is regarded as the founder of philosophical Daoism (Taoism), daojia 道家, because of his profound insights to life and the world, and a supreme deity in religious Daoism (Taoism), daojiao 道教, and popular Chinese religious cults.

Legend goes that Laozi grew unhappy about the moral decay and decline of the society and decided to leave for the unsettled frontier in the west. A noble lie says that Yinxi (尹喜), the official in charge of Han’gu Pass (函谷关) on the border saw some purple clouds flying towards his direction, and then euphorically expected and welcomed the renowned master’s arrival. Yinxi managed to persuade the master to write down his wisdom before he began his new life as a hermit. The brief pamphlet, also named after its author as ‘Laozi’, enjoyed a long-lasting appeal, resulting in more than seven hundred commentaries devoted to it by men of letters throughout the long history of China.

See more images of Laozi on the signature buffalo here and discussion about pictorial parody of Laozi riding an ox in this blog.

Laozi (Lao Tzu 老子), literally ‘old teacher or master’, is the well-known name for a great ancient Chinese thinker, to whom a five-thousand-character book ‘Dao de jing 道德经’, or The Scripture of the Way and Virtue, has been attributed. He is regarded as the founder of philosophical Daoism (Taoism), daojia 道家, because of his profound insights to life and the world, and a supreme deity in religious Daoism (Taoism), daojiao 道教, and popular Chinese religious cults.

The earliest images of the legendary figure can be traced back to the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) when he was typically portrayed as a geriatric riding on the signature buffalo, as are found on two hanging scrolls, one by the Zhe-school painter Zhang Lu 张路 (ca. 1464 – 1538) and the other spuriously attributed to Chao Buzhi 晁补之 (1053 – 1110), a Song-dynasty literary man. In the former, Laozi is holding a scroll in his right hand, presumably representing his seminal work. In the latter, Laozi is depicted as a stout character, which later became Laozi’s more formal persona.

Read more about Laozi’s famous events here.