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Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

Congratulations to Dr Yibin Ni for his new findings on the Ming Potter Wu Wei and his beautiful porcelain artworks that have been collected around the world yet not properly identified. Dr Ni’s findings have contributed greatly in identifying the age and authenticity of the Chinese ceramics.

According to the oldest dictionary in China, Shuowen jiezi 说文解字 (Explanations of Simple Graphs and Analyses of Composite Graphs), the earliest version of the character for ‘crane’ is a composite graph consisting of a pictograph for a bird, the present-day character niao 鸟, at the right, with feet and a feathered tail, along with a sound element at the left indicating how the character should be pronounced at that time.

With the exception of the magical bird fenghuang (凤凰, phoenix), roughly translated into English as ‘phoenix’, the red-crowned white crane is the most auspicious of all birds in China and a widely revered creature in popular religion, mythology and among literati.

In the chapter entitled ‘Discourse on Forests’ 说林训 of The Huainanzi 淮南子 (The Discourses of the Huainan Masters), a book containing some debates held in the court of Prince of Huainan (179–122 BCE) before 139 BCE, the crane’s life is said to be ‘up to 1,000 years, during which it can fly freely to its heart’s content.’ As one of the most common symbols of longevity in China, the bird is often depicted in the company of other symbols of great age, such as the shou 寿 character, the peach 桃, the pine tree 松, the tortoise 龟, the lingzhi fungus 灵芝, garden rock 寿石, the emblem of the Eight Daoist Immortals 暗八仙, or the Longevity God of the South Pole 南极仙翁, to enhance their potency. The high-soaring crane often serves as the mount of immortals and fairies and is also supposed to lift those mortals who have just attained immortality up to heaven. Naturally, formal Daoists’ gowns bear flying cranes as a decorative motif and the combination of cranes and the Eight Trigrams known in Chinese as bagua 八卦 often adorn Daoist ceremonial utensils.

The crane’s qualities of sacredness and gentlemanliness acquired their ultimate recognition when, during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911), the most senior grade of imperial civil servants – the highest-flying, oldest, wisest, and most dutiful ‘sons’ of their imperial ‘father’, the emperor – wore a white crane rank badge or mandarin square in front of their chest.

Artists often confine the crane within a circle since the roundness indicates ‘perfection’, resulting in a frequently encountered ‘crane medallion’ design, known in Chinese as ‘tuanhe wen 团鹤纹’.

Lack of knowledge in a specific culture would lead to a slip of putting the boot on the wrong leg, as is the case of identifying the longevity icon crane, in the context of symbols of the similar kind such as peaches and the lingzhi fungi, as a ‘stylized pelican’, which very rarely features in Chinese pictorial tradition.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

Related blog:

How do Chinese combine symbols in pictorial art to increase the potency of the longevity concept?

Pun Design: Persimmons + Apples + Quails

Punning Details

The Chinese character ‘shi 柿’ in ‘shi zi 柿子’ for ‘persimmon’ can pun on ‘shi 事’ for ‘things’. The repetition of ‘shi’ as ‘shi shi 事事’ means ‘everything’. The word ‘ping 苹’ in ‘ping guo 苹果’ for ‘apple’ can make a pun on ‘ping 平’ for ‘peace’. The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ puns on ‘an 安’, another Chinese word for ‘peace’.

 

画面要素: 柿子 + 苹果 + 鹌鹑

谐音详情: ‘柿子’ 中 ‘柿’ 与 ‘事’ 谐音, 叠字则为 ‘事事’, ‘苹果’ 中 ‘苹’ 谐音 ‘平’, ‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 与 ‘安’ 谐音。

 

Related Pun Rebus:

May you enjoy peace and harmony 安和

Pun Design: Quails + seedheads of foxtail millet

Punning Details:

The word ‘sui 穗’ for ‘millet seedhead’ is a pun on ‘sui 岁’ for ‘year’; the repetition of ‘sui’ means ‘year in year out’. The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’.

 

画面要素: 鹌鹑 + 粟米穗

谐音详情: ‘粟米穗’ 中 ‘穗’谐音 ‘岁’; ‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 的谐音 ‘安’。

 

Related Pun Rebuses:

May you be trouble-free and roll in wealth 平安多利

May you both live a peaceful life 双安

Pun Design: Persimmons + Quails

Punning Details:

The word ‘shi 柿’ in ‘shi zi 柿子’ for ‘persimmon’ can pun on ‘shi 事’ for ‘things’. The repetition of ‘shi’ as ‘shi shi 事事’ means ‘everything’. The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ puns on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’ and in this case cues the phrase ‘an shun 安顺’ for ‘peaceful and smooth’.

画面要素: 柿子 + 鹌鹑

谐音详情: ‘柿子’中 ‘柿’与 ‘事’ 谐音, 叠字则为 ‘事事’, ‘鹌鹑’ 谐音 ‘安顺’。

Pun Design: Apples + Quails + Lychee

Punning Details:

The Chinese character ‘ping 苹’ in ‘ping guo 苹果’ for ‘apple’ can make a pun on ‘ping 平’ for ‘peace’. The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ puns on ‘an 安’, another Chinese word for ‘peace’. The word ‘li 荔’ in ‘li zhi 荔枝’ for ‘lychee’ sounds the same as ‘li 利’ for ‘profit’. Thus, this seemingly random juxtaposition of lychee, quails, and apples was used by the prominent 20th-century Chinese painter Qi Baishi (齐白石, 1864-1957) to convey a good wish for the recipient of the painting to enjoy both wealth and peace.

 

画面要素: 苹果 + 鹌鹑 + 荔枝

谐音详情: ‘苹果’ 中 ‘苹’ 的谐音 ‘平’, ‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 与 ‘安’ 谐音, ‘荔枝’ 中 ‘荔’ 与 ‘利’ 谐音。

 

Related Pun Pictures:

May you have plenty of profit 多利

May you do well in exams and enjoy wealth and prestige 功名富贵

Pun Design: Long-tailed Pheasant + Quail

Punning Details:

The combination of the first and third words in ‘chang wei zhi 长尾雉’ for ‘long-tailed pheasant’ is ‘chang zhi’ and it puns on the phrase ‘chang zhi 长治’ for ‘long-term good order (in a country)’. The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. Some images would even depict nine quails to make a pun on the number ‘nine (jiu 九)’ for ‘jiu 久’ meaning ‘for a long time’. Thus, these natural motifs form a pun rebus to convey the intended auspicious message to wish for a country to be in good order and a peaceful status for a long time.

Also named as ‘Jiu An Chang Zhi 久安长治

 

画面要素: 长尾雉 + 鹌鹑

谐音详情: ‘长尾雉’中首尾二字与‘长治’谐音; ‘鹌鹑’中‘鹌’与‘安’谐音。以画面祝国家得以长期治理,民生平安。

Pun Design: Quail + Long-tailed Pheasant

Punning Details:

The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. The combination of the first and third words in ‘chang wei zhi 长尾雉’ for ‘long-tailed pheasant’ is ‘chang zhi’ and it puns on the phrase ‘chang zhi’ for ‘long-term good order (in a country)’. Thus, these natural motifs form a pun rebus to convey the intended auspicious message.

Some images will depict nine quails to make a pun on the number ‘nine (jiu 九)’ for ‘jiu 久’ meaning ‘for a long time’.

Also named as Chang Zhi Jiu An 长治久安.

 

画面要素: 鹌鹑 + 长尾雉

谐音详情: ‘鹌鹑’中‘鹌’与‘安’谐音; ‘长尾雉’中首尾二字与‘长治’谐音, 寓意祝长期国泰民安

Pun Design: nine + quail

Punning Details

The Chinese word ‘jiu 九’ for ‘nine’ puns on the word ‘jiu 久’ for ‘lasting’. The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. Thus, the image of nine quails can be used to cue the auspicious message of ‘May peace bless you forever’.

Related Pun Pictures:

May the country enjoy peace and good order permanently 长治久安

Pun Design: Quails + Magpies

Punning Details:

The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ puns on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. The word ‘‘xi 喜’ in ‘xi que 喜鹊’ for ‘magpie’ can mean ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’. Thus, the combination of quails and magpies can be used to convey the auspicious message of ‘May you enjoy peace and happiness’.

 

画面要素: 鹌鹑 + 喜鹊

谐音详情: 取‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 与 ‘安’ 谐音和 ‘喜鹊’ 中的 ‘喜’ 字构成 ‘安喜’ 祝愿。

 

Related Pun Picture:

May unexpected good luck descend on you 喜从天降

 

Pun Design: Quails + Cereal Plant

Punning Details

The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. The word ‘he 禾’ for ‘cereal plant’ makes a pun on ‘he 和’ for ‘harmony’. Thus, the combination of quails and cereal plant can be used to convey the auspicious message of ‘May you enjoy peace and harmony’.

 

画面要素: 鹌鹑 + 禾

谐音详情: 取 ‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 与 ‘安’谐音、 ‘禾’ 与 ‘和’ 谐音, 意为: 平安和谐。

 

Related Pun Picture:

May you enjoy a peaceful life year after year 岁岁平安

The Chinese character ‘an 鹌’ in ‘anchun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. The character ‘zhu 竹’ for ‘bamboo’ is a pun on ‘zhu 祝’ for the verb ‘to wish’ and thus is used here to cue the character cluster ‘zhubao 竹报 (祝报)’ for the verb phrase ‘to wish to announce or send’. Thus, a composition containing quails and bamboo can be used to convey a good wish that you be safe and sound.

This pun rebus design has a variation in which the image of firecrackers is used. The reverse of the Chinese characters ‘baozhu 爆竹’ for ‘firecracker’ is ‘zhubao’, which puns on the character cluster ‘zhubao 祝报’ for the verb phrase ‘wish to announce or send’. Bamboo can be kept in a vase as a table top decoration. The Chinese character ‘ping 瓶’ for ‘vase’ is homophonic to the word ‘ping 平’, which can cue the phrase ‘pingan 平安’ for ‘safe and sound’.

Furthermore, a scene of children lighting firecracker can be used to cue the good wish that the receiver be safe and sound for the reason explained above.

 

Related topic:

Yingying receiving good news delivered by the pageboy 泥金报捷

Pun Design: Two + Quails

Punning Details: The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. The Chinese word for ‘double’ is ‘shuang 双’. When there is a gathering of two quails, i.e.‘shuang an 双鹌’, a pictorial pun can be formed to mean ‘shuang an 双安’ for ‘both living a peaceful life’ or ‘double peace’.

画面要素:   二 + 鹌鹑;

谐音详情:  以‘两只鹌鹑’的形象表‘双安’

 

Related topic:

Heavenly immortals and fairies are celebrating your birthday 天仙拱寿

The feng phoenix, or feng huang 凤凰, which is often portrayed to resemble a peacock or golden pheasant, is the second of China’s Four Sacred Creatures (the others being the long dragon 龙, the qilin 麒麟 and the tortoise). Except in its mythic status, this creature is not related to the fabulous fire-born bird of Mediterranean and Near Eastern mythology. However, the feng phoenix is linked with heat, since it is the guardian of the south, and therefore a symbol of the sun, summer warmth and harvest.

The Chinese phoenix is sometimes interpreted as a male (yang) animal, but when accompanying the (male) dragon it represents a wife, and pictures of a dragon and phoenix together symbolise marital bliss. As the imperial dragon was a symbol for the emperor, the phoenix was the particular emblem of the empress, and a woman on her wedding day might wear a dress adorned with the phoenix to show that she was ‘empress for the day’.

In Chinese literature, the body of the phoenix is sometimes said to represent the Five Good Qualities: virtue (the bird’s head); humanity (the breast); reliability (the stomach); duty (the wings); and proper ritual conduct (the back). Like the dragon, the phoenix has important imperial associations. It was said to appear only during the reign of good, just emperors; and, unsurprisingly, artists and poets commonly flattered their imperial masters by declaring that a phoenix had been spotted on their land. Confucius, on the other hand, in his day bemoaned the absence of the phoenix and other auspicious celestial signs.

literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 

Pun Design: Quails + Chrysanthemum

Punning Details:

The word ‘an 鹌’ in ‘an chun 鹌鹑’ for ‘quail’ makes a pun on ‘an 安’ for ‘peace’. The word ‘ju 菊’ in ‘ju hua 菊花’ for ‘chrysanthemum’ puns on the word ‘ju 居’ for ‘to live’. Thus, the composition forms a pictorial pun that conveys the auspicious message of ‘May you live in peace and leisure’.

 

画面要素:鹌鹑 + 菊花

谐音详情:‘鹌鹑’ 中 ‘鹌’ 与 ‘安’ 谐音, ‘菊花’ 中 ‘菊’ 与 ‘居’ 谐音

 

Related Pun Pictures:

May you enjoy peace and happiness 安喜

May the country be in peace and order forever 久安长治

Quail is a middle-sized bird, and is nowadays farm-raised for table food and their eggs. However, they play an interesting role in traditional Chinese art with an auspicious meaning.

Quail’s Chinese name is ‘an chun’(鹌鹑). Its first character 鹌 (‘an’) is often used in Chinese language for its pun on ‘an’(安) which means peace and safety.

Related Pun Pictures:

May you live in peace and leisure 安居

May the country be in peace and order forever 久安长治

May you enjoy a peaceful life year after year 岁岁平安

San gong 三公’ are the ‘Three Top Lords in the Imperial Court’. The ‘gong 公’ from the Chinese name ‘gong ji 公鸡’ for ‘rooster’ puns on the Chinese name for ‘lord’ and three roosters in the picture represent the three top lords, which are the three top positions in the imperial court. The Chinese name for ‘cypress’ is ‘bai 柏’, which puns on ‘bai 百’ for ‘one hundred’. Hence the whole image expresses the wish for highly respected person to have a very long life.

 

Related Blog:

The Birthday Party of the Queen Mother of the West 西王母祝寿

Related motif:

Rooster 公鸡

Pun Design:

Persimmon + Chicken/ rooster/ cockerel

Punning Details:

– ‘shi 柿’ in ‘shi zi 柿子 persimmon’ is a pun on ‘shi 市 business’

– ‘大鸡 da ji’ for ‘large cockerel’ makes a pun on ‘大吉 da ji’ for ‘tremendous good luck’

This image can be expressed as a good wish for someone who has just started a new business venture.

Shuang 双’ is the Chinese word for ‘two’. ‘Xiong 雄’ in ‘Xiong ji 雄鸡’ in the Chinese name for ‘rooster’ makes a pun on ‘xiong 雄’ for ‘hero’. Thus, the image of two roosters in confrontation is meant to represent two competent officials competing with their intelligence for eminent government posts.

 

Related Pun Pictures:

May you rank among the three top civil servants 位列三公

May you do well in exams and enjoy wealth and prestige 功名富贵

Related motif:

Rooster 公鸡

San gong 三公’ are the ‘Three Top Lords in the Imperial Court’. The ‘gong 公’ from the Chinese name ‘gong ji 公鸡’ for ‘rooster’ puns on the Chinese name for ‘lord’ and three roosters in the picture represent the three top lords, which are the three top positions in the imperial court.

 

Related Pun Pictures:

Two heroes fighting with their intelligence 双雄斗智

May you couple live a harmonious life and enjoy prestige 并蒂双贵

 

Related motif:

Rooster 公鸡

The saying ‘jia guan 加官’ is an abbreviated form of the saying ‘guan shang jia guan 官上加官’:

Guan 冠’ in the Chinese name ‘ji guan hua 鸡冠花’ for ‘cockscomb’ is a pun on ‘guan 官’, which means ‘high-ranking official’. The crest on the head of a rooster is also called ‘guan 冠’ in Chinese. Thus, the appearance of both the cockscomb and rooster in a picture represents the auspicious saying ‘guan shang jia guan 官上加官’, which is literally “an official plus an official” and is used to wish an official to get promotion after promotion.

Related Pun Pictures:

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

May you couple live a harmonious life and enjoy prestige 并蒂双贵

May everything fare fabulously in your family 室上大吉

Related motif:

Rooster 公鸡

Guan 冠’ in the Chinese name ‘ji guan hua 鸡冠花’ for ‘cockscomb’ is a pun on ‘guan 官’, which means ‘high-ranking official’. The crest on the head of a rooster is also called ‘guan 冠’ in Chinese. Thus, the appearance of both the cockscomb and rooster in a picture represents the auspicious saying ‘guan shang jia guan 官上加官’, which is literally “an official plus an official” and is used to wish an official to get promotion after promotion.

As a variation, the popular auspicious good wish in the bureaucratic world can be expressed with a substitution of a grasshopper (guo guo’er 蝈蝈儿 in Beijing dialect) for the cockscomb plant. In Beijing dialect, the name of the grasshopper sounds similar to the word for ‘high official (guan’er 官儿)’. A further variation of the visual pun replaces the rooster with a jar. The jar, which is guan’er 罐儿 in Beijing dialect, puns on the word for ‘high official (guan’er 官儿)’.

This saying can be abbreviated as jia guan 加官’.

 

Related Pun Pictures:

May you do well in exams and enjoy wealth and prestige 功名富

May you enjoy imminent good fortune 大吉

Related motif:

Rooster 公鸡

Fu gui 富贵’ in ‘fu gui hua 富贵花’, literally, the ‘flower of wealth and prestige’,  which is a nickname in Chinese for ‘peony’, contributes to ‘wealth and privilege’ in the saying. ‘Ji 鸡’ is a pun on ‘qi 期’, which means ‘can be expected’.

The same design may be also referred to as ‘gong ming fu gui 功名富贵’.

 

Related motifs:

Rooster 公鸡

Peony 富贵花

The Chinese phrase ‘Gong ming 功名’ for ‘scholarly honour or official rank’ is a pun on two Chinese characters ‘gong 公’ and ‘ming 鸣’.

Gong 公’ from ‘gong ji 公鸡’, the Chinese name for ‘rooster’, makes pun on the Chinese word ‘gong 功’; and ‘ming 鸣’, which is the Chinese word for ‘cock’s crowing’, is a pun on ‘ming 名’.

Peony has a nickname in Chinese as ‘fu gui hua 富贵花’, literally, the ‘flower of wealth and prestige’.

Thus, the combination of roosters and peony flowers in one picture in Chinese people’s eyes sends the message of wishing someone do well in civil-service examinations, and go on to enjoy a rich and prestigious life.

The design may also be referred to as fu gui you qi 富贵有期’.

 

Related motifs:

Rooster 公鸡

Peony 富贵花

Ji 鸡’ is a generic name for cockerel, hen, and chick, and sounds the same as ‘ji 吉’ for ‘good fortune’. Thus, a picture of many chickens is used to represent ‘abundant good fortune’.

 

Related Pun Pictures:

May you enjoy imminent good fortune 大吉

May everything fare fabulously in your family 室上大吉 

Related motif: Rooster 公鸡

A large Longquan pottery rooster sculpted on a rock sends good fortune to the receiver’s or owner’s family because da ji 大 鸡 for ‘large rooster’ sounds the same as da ji 大 吉 for ‘great good fortune’ and shi shang 石上 for ‘on the rock’ puns on shi shang 室上 for ‘in your family’. Hence the rooster announces to the proud owner “May everything fare fabulously in your family!”

 

Related Pun Picture: May you enjoy imminent good fortune 大吉

Related motif: Rooster 公鸡

The Chinese name for rooster or chicken is ji 鸡, which is a pun on ji 吉 ‘good fortune’. ‘Da’ is the Chinese adjective for ‘big’ and ‘da ji‘ literally means ‘large rooster’ but puns on ‘great luck’.

Thus, these paintings convey the message ‘May you enjoy imminent good fortune’. It can be used on many social occasions where people wish the receiver to enjoy good fortune.

 

Related Pun Pictures:

May everything fare fabulously in your family 室上大吉

May you be blessed by good luck in all you do 百吉

Related motif: Rooster 公鸡

One of the most commonly used motifs that depicts household fowls. It has also been frequently used in pun rebuses with intended meaning of ‘good fortune’ or ‘good wishes’, as its Chinese pronunciation is ‘ji 鸡’, punning on ‘ji 吉’ which means good fortune. See more related pun rebus pictures:

May everything fare fabulously in your family shi 室上大吉 

May you enjoy imminent good fortune 大吉